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R J Astruc 
Lyn Battersby 
M P Ericson 
Shana Lear 
Tessa Kum 
Nigel Stones 
leanor S Tupper 
de Albert White 


...Joanne Anderton 

This is not my first ride with Andromeda Spaceways, although it's 
certainly been the longest. At first I only took small trips, just blips on the 
radar, long enough to pick up a mag with a jump-out-at-you cover and flick 
through its pages. Inevitably, the trips lengthened, they became buy-the-mag- 
and-read-all-the-stories length, then read the non-fiction, then the reviews. 
Finally, the read-it-all-again return trip. 

So, given this was my first time in the cabin I was going to write about 
something important in this editorial. It was going to be significant, maybe 
even controversial. I envisioned a piece to provoke argument, to get people 
thinking, maybe even to change someone's opinion about the world. Well, I 
was going to try. 

Then I realised just how serious that all sounded and I wondered, is that 
really why we're on board? Because I know it's not why I'm here. 

I'm here to read great stories. And then the non-fiction, and the reviews. 

How's that for deep and meaningful? 

I don't read Speculative Fiction because I want insights into the human 
condition, or biting social commentary, or self-referential analysis of the 
genre. And I'm certainly not saying Speculative Fiction can't do these things 
and more, or doesn't do these things, or can't do them well. All I'm saying is 
that's not why I read it. They are the whipped cream in my pavlova, but we 
all know we really eat pav for the meringue. 

I read Speculative Fiction for the crunchy, sugary mould, for the distance 
it can take you, even when your trip is just a blip on the radar. I read it for 
the adventure of being lost in another world, or a future world, for meeting 
characters with amazing powers, for the humour and the unparalleled sense 
of 'other'. Sounds simple, and so much the better. 

With that in mind, I invite you to feast on the stories in this issue, the 
meringue or the whipped cream, whichever you prefer. There's plenty of 
adventure in other worlds and future places. Some of the stories are darkly 
humorous, some make me laugh out loud every time I read them. And there's 
even one or two that are quiet and touching. 

So sit back and enjoy the flight. Don't mind that little red flashing button 
close to your elbow, everything's under control. And no matter how long you're 
here for, be it blip-length or the next in a long series of return flights, here's 
hoping you enjoy the food. 

Joanne Anderton 
Editor, Issue 34 


VOL 6/ISSUe 4 ISSUe 34 


04 The Flying Woman R J Astruc 

14 Drinking From the Saucer Nigel Stones 

16 Blood Debt MP Ericson 

38 The Assassin's Gentleman Wade Albert White 

50 This is Not a Love Song Lyn Battersby 

52 The Witchmaiden and the Dragon: A Riff Ellie Tupper 

61 Murphy's Law Shana Lear 

76 Bitter Elsie Mae Tessa Kum 


60 Ride Away Elizabeth Barrette 


83 Fantasy: Imagined Worlds, or 

Current Social Commentary? Tehani Wessely 

87 Interview: Jackie Kessler Tehani Wessely 

89 Reviews Dirk Flinthart, Tehani Wessely 


94 Author biographies 
96 Acknowledgements 

Andromeda Spaceways Publishing Co-op Ltd 

c/- Simon Haynes, PO Box 1 27 Belmont, Western Australia, 

Published bimonthly by Andromeda Spaceways Publishing 
Co-op. RRP A$8.95. Subscription rates are are available 
from the website. 

Andromeda Spaceways Publishing Co-op actively encourages 
literary and artistic contributions. Submissions should be 
made online by emailing: 

Submission guidelines are available from the website. Please 
read them. 

Editor, Issue 34 

Joanne Anderton 


Stuart Barrow 


Robbie Matthews 


Zara Baxter 


Simon Haynes 


Tehani Wessely 

Cover Art 

Bruno Werneck 

The Flying Woman 

...R J Astruc 

The Council says it's the pipes. 

Something to do with the earth settling, they say. Something to do with the 
earth settling and the metal rusting and the winter coming and the globe warming 
and the glacial shifting of tectonic plates deep beneath the concrete foundations of 
Wickley Street West. Something to do, no doubt, with the fact that our tenements 
haven't seen a qualified plumber since Latysha DuBois from flat 21C quit her affair 
with the bald guy from Mario's Toilet Specialists. Or it could be something to do 
with BZM Tricky's failed attempt to dispose of two litres of illegal chemicals down 
the loo of 6D last Tuesday. But whatever the cause, the root of the problem is 
the pipes, so the Council says, and that's their final word on the matter. Just the 

Which is absolute bollocks, of course, because no pipe on this earth could possibly 
emit a scream so spine-chillingly human, no matter how bloody rusty it is. 

I've heard some screams in my lifetime — a lifetime, by the way, that stretches 
all the way from twenty-first century West London to the long long ago of 
Zoroaster's New Persia. I've heard the howls of foolhardy Spartans slain in their 
hundreds by Xerxes's militia; I've heard the bestial braying of the wild demon- 
deevs who live deep in the mountains of Mazandaran; and I've heard little Susie 
Soo from 9B let out some truly horrific squeals when her mum won't let her watch 
the Tellytubbies. I can tell you from all those years of experience, and without a 
moment's hesitation, that the Wickley Street West screams are infinitely worse. 
We're talking about the kind of noise you'd get if Fay Wray strangled a cat whilst 
simultaneously dragging her fingernails down a blackboard. 

The other tenants of Wickley Street West think I'm losing my mind — or goin' 
flippen mental, in our common chav patois. Anita Singh, the pretty Indian lady 
from 19B, suggests I'm having some kind of bachelor-specific breakdown. "What 
you need is a wife, Zeem," she tells me when I drop by with her Hindi newspaper. 
"Find yourself a Mrs al-Djinn who will take your mind off this screaming nonsense. 
You may just be a Tesco's till-jockey but there are many women out there who do 
not mind men without prospects or money. Just the other week I was talking to a 
lovely Middle Eastern lady in the supermarket who has a daughter of marriageable 
age with very low self esteem — " 

"The screaming, Annie!" I splutter. "Don't you hear it?" 



"Not anymore. Raj finally connected our new subwoofers to the telly" Anita says, 
beaming. "Did I tell you it is a plasma? Picture so clear you can see every single 
pimple on the faces of those pretty Neighbours boys. Raj bought it from ebay of 
course, because of the bargains..." 

Chu Hong, the foreign exchange student from 24D, is similarly blase about the 
screaming. "It is distracting me from my studies, yes," she agrees, glaring at me over 
her biology textbook, "but no more so than the fights, the loud music, Latysha DuBois 
having sex, the dogs barking and certain people who drop by unannounced to ask me 
about the noise." 

Later that evening, when I check in on BZM Tricky, ringleader of the Wickley 
Street West hood, he claims he hasn't heard the screams at all over the sound of 
his Playstation. Not that it'd really matter if he heard them or not. "Screams?" he 
smirks, fingers twitching over the buttons of a ridiculous plastic guitar that's somehow 
connected to the bright spots appearing on his telly. "This is bleedin' Wickley, Zeem, 
who the hell cares?" 

I'll be the first to admit it: we tenement-dwellers aren't what you'd call a well- 
adjusted bunch. But like those jolly folk on Coronation Street, we've always survived 
through the virtue of community — we take care of our own. In times of trouble, 
people usually turn to me. Don't misunderstand me — it's not a matter of faith. They 
all have their own gods, of course: Jehovah, Krishna, Allah, the Goddess, Buddha, you 
name it, this is multi-bloody-cultural Britain after all — but I'm closer, see, and I'm 
accessible in the way gods and supernatural types usually aren't. My door — the door 
of flat 12B — is always open, and when they talk to me, I have the good manners to 
talk back. 

So it hurts that when I want help, no one seems to care. 

The only other person in the tenements who finds the screaming disturbing is 
Mack Barden from 26B. "Never heard anything like it," he marvels, as I dutifully help 
him carry his shopping up to his flat. "Damn Council knows nothing, never does. I 
reckon one of those gang-banger boys on the third floor have got someone hostage in 
their room. You listen closely, Zeem, and you'd swear it was a woman crying." 

Mack is a true Wickley Street West irregular, a geriatric ex-pat who lost his 
Merkin accent in transit somewhere between Philadelphia and Piccadilly. Normally 
unflappable, I'm surprised that the screams have managed to get under his skin too. 
"I'd be out of here if it weren't for the wife," he confides. "Woman's still in bed after 
her last turn. Lucky she isn't bothered by all the noise — deep sleeper, is my Mary." 

I sigh. "She'd have to be." 

By the time the second week is up, I've just about had it. I'm even considering 
moving into a Finchley-side flat with a co-worker from Tesco's, or renting a room in 
one of those grimy backpacker hostels in Camden. I'm a divine creature of beauty 
and music; having to listen to screams twenty four hours a day is literal torture. And 
unlike everyone else, I don't have a Playstation or subwoofers to drown it out. 

I'm throwing t-shirts into doubled plastic bags — the closest thing I have on hand 
to an actual suitcase — when my flat-neighbour Johnny Flannery breaks into my 
house to give me a chocolate cake. 


The Flying Woman 


"Zeeeeem," says Johnny, the grin on his face wide enough to bridge the Thames. 
The cake sits in one hand; from the other hangs a bushel of bent wires and spikes, his 
lock-picking tools of the trade. Our Johnny's what you'd call a ne'er-do-well, but he's 
a particularly charming, considerate and good-looking ne'er-do-well, which elevates 
his social standing from mindless thug to local god. A few inches shy of seven feet tall, 
he's all hard brown muscle and ripped denim, with eyes as sharp as a magpie with 
binoculars — the guy can spot an unlocked window or an unwatched purse from a 
distance of a hundred metres in low-visibility conditions. 

He kicks the door closed behind him and meanders in, his stride the easy swagger 
that's become his trademark in these parts. "Long time no see, eh?" 

As a matter of fact it's been a very long time and no see. For the past eight weeks 
Johnny Flannery has been peeling spuds in Her Majesty's, after being caught doing 
what he refers to as a little harmless thievin' and nickin'. This isn't the first time our 
Johnny's been caught thievin' or nickin', nor is it the first time he's been in jail, nor is it 
even the first time he's broken into my house to tell me about it, so I can't understand 
why he sees the need to commemorate the event with cake. 

"What's this?" 

"Cake," says Johnny, sucking cream off his fingers. "Chocolate cake. I got it special 
from the bakers in Finchley. Can't hardly tell the icing rubbed off some in me bag." 
"You know I don't eat." 

Johnny pulls a face. "It ain't for eating," he explains, in a patient tone I've heard 
him use to placate cynical juries. "It's an offerin', a present, right? Me granny told me 
I should always bring the little people cake if I'm to ask them to grant a boon. That 
way they're more likely to grant it, see?" 

Of all the people in Wickley Johnny is the only one who knows of my supernatural 
background — let's just say that granny of his is a little too canny for her own good. 
Problem is, the word fairy in New Persia suggests a significantly different thing in 
western folklore (not to mention what it suggests in modern London). Western folklore 
usually defines a fairy as a perky little creature who dances about in stockings and big 
shoes with curled toes and probably has a name like Whifflebottom or Fluff scamper. 
But in New Persia we peri are — were — fallen angels, which makes us rather more 
hardcore than your average Whifflebottom. Sure, we're pretty and musical and like 
flowers, but we don't play tricks, we don't dress like Santa's elves and you're more 
likely to catch us wielding a sword than a magic wand. 

"Johnny," I say, shaking out the last of my t-shirts to be packed, "I'm not little 
people, I don't live under a toadstool and if you want to curry my favour, hire me a 

"Wish I could, Zeem, but me girlfriend wouldn't let me. Says I'm not allowed to 
speak to ladies of the night. Look mate, I got nothin' else to give and I got no one else 
to tell, no one who ain't gonna look at me like I'm some kinda crazy." 

"What's wrong?" 

"I'm seein' a flying woman." 

"A flying woman," I echo. I sense that this is either a joke at my expense or a beer- 
induced fantasy. If it were anyone else at my doorstep I'd send them packing with 
a choice word or two about wasting my time — except I'm terribly fond of Johnny, 



who's the closest I have to a real friend, if being a real friend means that you're 
obligated to cough up bail money every other month and lie to their parole officer. 
"Fancy that. And where exactly is this flying woman of yours?" 

Johnny isn't easily dissuaded. "Right outside, Zeem. What, don't you hear her 

I stop short. 

"Screaming, you say?" 

A few minutes later we're outside the tenements, standing on the small brown 
patch of lawn that suffices for a communal garden. Johnny looks up, raising a hand to 
his face, squinting against what little sunlight has managed to batter its way through 
the thick grey clouds overhead. This is interesting in and of itself, because the overcast 
sky is a localised phenomenon — just on the other side of Wickley Street, in fact, the 
sun is bright, the sky cloudless. The whole thing is ominous in a cheesy B-movie way, 
which somehow makes it more unnerving. 

"Look up and to the right, yeah? There's an old lady up there, hanging around 
'bout the third floor, hollerin' her guts out. Can't see too clearly, but I think she's 
brushin' — combin' — her hair. Don't know how the old bird got up there, mind, what 
with the rheumatisms they all get at that age..." He looks to me for support. "You do 
see her, don't you?" 

I stand in the shadow of Johnny's near-seven foot frame and try to follow his line 
of sight. But there's nothing there. "No," I admit. 
"Zeem, mate, she's right there — " 
"But I can't see her." 

Johnny furrows his brow. "You reckon I'm crazy?" 

I don't think Johnny's crazy. Unrepentant kleptomaniac he might be, but crazy, no. 
He's certainly right about one thing: the screams do seem to be emanating from that 
place. And while I can't see anything, I can smell something. The odour isn't strong 
but it's definitely there — a damp, rotten smell, like old clothing, like mouldering 
paper, like the abandoned shed in Tesco's carpark where we till-jockeys meet on our 
smoke-breaks. And I sense, too, a strange electricity loose in the air, a chilly breeze too 
penetrating for this British summer, and atmospheric sparks of something that must 
be, that can only be, magic. 

A flying woman who screams and combs her hair and can only be seen by Johnny 
Flannery of 12A. There's only one supernatural nuisance I can think of fits this profile. 
Bean sidhe. Or, in the common parlance, banshee. 

'Johnny?" I say, turning back to him. "Your granny's Irish, isn't she?" 

I read Darwin a few years ago. 

Not The Origin of Species but the precocious prequel, Letters to my Emma, an 
informal collection of the correspondence between Darwin and his future wife and 
cousin, Emma Hedgewood. Don't bother trying your library — they won't have heard 
of it. The book never reached a traditional publisher, and instead languished for over 
a century at the bottom of the future Mrs Darwin's glory box until an auction brought 

The Flying Woman 


it to light in the early 1950s. From there the manuscript passed through several 
sweaty hands, eventually making its way onto the supernatural black-market in the 
sixties, where it was reproduced and sold within our circles as a cult classic. 

Letters to My Emma is the real monkey trial, you see, in which old Charlie does his 
absolute best to combine Emma's Catholic catechetics with the theory of evolution — 
and therefore secure her hand in marriage. Although he eventually wins the argument, 
it's clear that his victory has less to do with the clarity of his stance and more to do 
with Emma's growing affection for him. Certainly, Charlie gets some facts right, but 
in his letters he makes two critical mistakes: the first being that religion is set in stone 
and the second being that immortals have to give a damn about evolution. 

And really, why should we? After all, we don't have to do it ourselves. Our 
apathy even extends to the world's social evolution. You won't see medieval British 
ghouls dressing up in Adidas sweatpants or getting jiggy with it. You won't catch the 
monkey-general Hanuman offering tactical advice on India's nuclear weapons policy. 
You won't find goggle-eyed Chinese dragons haggling for bargains at the local Asian 
supermarket. In fact your average immortal wanders about as if it's still 1852, or 526, 
or 725 BCE. 

"We don't change, Johnny, you see what I'm saying?" 

"You say that, Zeem, but I still see you workin' the till at Tesco's." 

"The exception that proves the rule. I'm from an entirely different era and an 
entirely different country. My kind has always lived closely with humans. Back in 
Persia, we used to work and fight alongside humans — even marry them now and 
then. On the other hand, the most interaction banshees ever had with humans was to 
turn up once every seventy years and scream portentously at them for a few minutes. 
Nowadays it'd be more polite, more convenient, if they screamed portentously over 
the phone or wrote portentous emails. But no, this one is obviously sticking to the 
old banshee MO." 

By this stage of the afternoon we're sitting by the fireside of the only pub on The 
King's Passage, the cobbled alleyway that branches off from Wickley Street. The pub's 
name, incidentally, is The Queen's Finger, which is what passes for high humour in 
Wickley. I'm not a fan of pubs myself — even the cheapest wines aren't harsh enough 
to satisfy my tastes — but at least the banshee's piercing ululations can't reach us 
through the thick stone walls of the Finger. 

Well, that's Johnny's official reasoning for the visit, but I've a hunch that the reality 
is Johnny just needs a pint, in much the same way a bloke in hell just needs a glass of 
water. Frankly I don't blame him. If eight weeks in Wandsworth clink fails to send a 
man to drink, a close encounter of the ghoulish Celtic kind surely will. 

"I ain't allowed an email address since me woman caught me signing up to enlarge 
me willy, and I ain't paid the phone bill in years." Johnny takes a long draught of his 
beer, then belches explosively into his hand. "Zeem, man, I don't want to die any time 
soon. Me granny always said that if'n you hear one of 'em banshees you only got a 
day to live. Mebbe less." 

"It can't be screaming after you. You haven't even been here for the past two 
months." Gently I ease his hand off his pint and slide a coaster beneath the glass. 
"I expect that the first banshees appeared to farmers living out in the middle of 



nowhere. There'd be no one around to hear or see them except the soon-to-be-dead. 
It's a different story now that the Irish have migrated to places with Council tenements 
and a population density of five people per ten square feet. Trust me, Johnny, everyone 
can hear the banshee. Unless Kim Jong-il has decided that the greatest threat to his 
rulership is a bunch of dippy chavs from outer-West London, or the US government 
has received intelligence that Tricky is hiding weapons of mass destruction in his 
closet, I don't think we all have much to worry about." 
Johnny frowns. "But only I can see her." 

"You're Irish. Well, partly Irish, but I don't think all the Nigerians and South 
Africans and Slovakians your ancestors knocked up in the last century make much 
difference if you're still a direct blood descendant of one of the old ruling clans of 

The fire crackles and pops in the hearth as Johnny Flannery runs a finger 
thoughtfully around the rim of his glass. "You're forgettin' somethin' there, Zeem." 
"What's that then?" 

"She's got to be screamin' about someone." 

"Surely not for two weeks straight?" I may not be an expert in Celtic mythology 
— the wealth of my knowledge comes from watching a badly synched VHS of The 
Leprechaun a decade ago — but I'm fairly sure that banshees don't hang around 
any longer than Latysha DuBois' revolving-door boyfriends. In my mind I've got 
this picture of a banshee caught in some kind of time-loop, its scream hopping and 
repeating like a broken record. 

"Why not?" Johnny knocks back the last dregs of his drink. "Mebbe she's screaming 
about someone who's takin' a hell of a long time to die." 

"Oh come on. Someone who's not only taking a long time to die, but who's also 
blind and deaf? If anyone else saw a flying screaming woman hanging outside their 
window, I suspect my door would be the first they'd knock on. Really, Johnny, they'd 
have to be out cold if they — ohhh." 

That moment, that ohhh, that's the point where I get it. 

There's a bit in Letters to my Emma, right at the beginning, where young Charlie 
naively suggests that science and religion can exist comfortably alongside each other. 
Which I'm sure they can; the problems only start when they attempt to interact. 
Charlie's right on one front — science doesn't invalidate religion — but it sure 
confuses the hell out of it. 

"What do you damn kids wan — oh, it's you, Zeem." 
"Yes, sir. I need help." 

"And you aren't the only one, looks like." Mack Barden peers up at Johnny — peers 
up and up, really — and makes a low tutting beneath his breath. "Thought you were 
meant to be doing time, Flannery. I suppose Her Majesty's locks were no match for 
your skills, eh." 

"Got out on good behaviour," says Johnny cheerfully. "I'm a bleedin' role model, 

The Flying Woman 


"Sir, can we come in? I'll see to it that Johnny keeps his hands to himself." 
"My wife is in no fit state — " 
"Actually, sir, that's why we're here." 
Reluctantly he unfastens the catch and lets us in. 

It's a small apartment, smaller than our second-floor bachelor pads, or perhaps 
it only seems that way because of the clutter of old-people trinkets that line every 
available surface: tiny china dogs, teapots, plates, sepia-hued photos in wide gold 
frames. The greying wallpaper is covered with a motif of fleur-de-lis. Close by, the 
banshee screams. Johnny catches my eye and I nod. At this range it's impossible to 
imagine those sobs and howls as anything other than a woman weeping. 

Mrs Barden lies on a low bed in the living room. If it weren't for the tubes in her 
arms and nose you could mistake her sleep as natural. A tired housewife getting in a 
quick nap before her husband arrives home from work. Her hands lie palms up at her 
sides, the wrists buckled forward. Her nails are painted a vivid red. I remember her 
as a loud, boisterous woman, always rushing somewhere — to church, to the shops, 
to dinner with friends. I remember liking her smile. 

I always forget that having a turn in England can mean anything from catching 
a tummy bug to suffering a stroke. Except someone with a tummy bug would be 
unlikely to sleep through a banshee's screams. 

"I don't have to feed her," says Mack. "There are tubes for that. The hospital was 
very kind after the... after her turn. We have a carer who comes in three times a 

"She was an O'-something before she married, wasn't she?" I say. "Descendant of 
one of the old Irish clans. An O'Connor or an O'Neill or an O'Toole." 
"O'Neill. She used to be Mary O'Neill." 

Although the curtain is drawn and the lights restfully dim, I can see that Mrs 
Barden's bed is positioned directly beneath a large, east-facing window. 

"She isn't really in there, you know," Mack says. There's a confused expression 
on his face, as if the sound of his own words, his own private prognosis, are a little 
shocking to him. "The hospital said that she might pull through, pull out of this, but 
I know it's over now. I'm just waiting for... for the time." 

"She's on life-support, like?" Johnny asks. 

"The machine breathes for her." 

Of course it does. And of course the banshee doesn't understand. Because banshees 
don't care about science. Banshees don't know anything about life support systems or 
brain death or comas. They're not modern-world compatible. They don't understand 
how humans can evade death for weeks or months or even years with their vitals 
plugged into machines. Banshees are old-school: they come from a time when dying 
meant you actually ended up dead. 

"I know it's over," Mack repeats, sliding heavily into an armchair opposite his 
prone wife. "But what do I do? She's my wife, my Mary, but I can't do it — can't hardly 
even think," he adds with a snarl, "with the sound of those damnable pipes..." 

"We could help," I suggest. 

"No — no. My Mary was a good Catholic lady. I don't want her die in the hands of 
no Muslim or hood — no offence or anything, but you know how it is." 



Actually New Persia and Zoroasterism predate Islam (and, hell, Catholicism) by 
several centuries, and Johnny considers himself less of a hood and more of a freelance 
locksmith, but I don't want to seem picky. Poor man is going through a rough enough 
time without getting an ear-bashing on cultural sensitivity. 

"I meant that we could help you afterwards," I say, reaching for his hand — but 
already I know it's useless, can sense it in the stiff line of Mack's shoulders. He's not 
a man who believes in the precepts of dying gracefully; he is a hanger-on, a clinger-to 
of life and perhaps, though he won't admit it, hope. "I'm so very sorry," is all I can 
think of to say, small, weak words, and Mack doesn't look at me. 

I withdraw to the window to consult with Johnny. 

"Do somethin'," Johnny urges. 

"Do something? Do what?" 

"Well if Mack won't help, you could always have a word with Miss You Know 
Who," he suggests, giving the window a meaningful look. 

"Me? Why don't you, Johnny?" I hiss, and drag back the curtain in one swift move, 
leaving the rollers shuddering within the rail. "You're the only one who can see her, 
and chances are you'll be the only one who can communicate with her, too. You were 
auditioning earlier for the position of Human Ambassador for Fairy Relations — why 
not try your chocolate cake shtick on this one? After all, our misery chick here is a 
sidhe, a supernatural subspecies known to be far more obliging toward present-givers 
than your average Persian peri. " 

Together Johnny and I stare out the window. I can't see the banshee. But I can 
tell from the change in Johnny's expression that she is there. He has what you'd call 
an empathic face: the miseries of others reflect easily in it. So I can see our suburban 
bean sidhe through his eyes, her cheeks glistening with tears, her sharp features 
framed by ribbons of white hair. 

Johnny's forehead furrows. "Should I get the cake, then?" 


But he's already opening the window and leaning out. I wonder what the banshee 
will make of Johnny Flannery, a man with the blood of a Dubliner but the accent of a 
London docker, and the smooth, coffee-coloured skin you only get from a thoroughly 
multicultural wade in the global gene pool. Gripping the sill with both hands, Johnny 
coughs politely in a way that makes me think immediately of a young Charlie Darwin 
preparing to explain the nature of natural selection to pretty Miss Hedgewood. 

"Lady?" he says. "Lady?" 

The screaming tails off to a low howl and is replaced by a series of sniffles. 
Something like the sound Xerxes made after his troops were forced snivelling back 
from Salamis — or, if you prefer, the sound that little Susie Soo makes when she's 
forced to eat her greens. 

"Lady," says Johnny, "she's gone. Passed away long ago. Only reason she's still 
breathing is the fact they got a machine now what does it for her. It's all wires, lady. 
You don't believe me, you look at Mr Barden's face." 

And he steps aside as Mack looks up from his armchair slump, dead-eyed and 
miserable. It's a funny thing, but you can't mistake grief for loss, not if you stare it in 
its pale and punctured face over the near-corpse of its wife. Mack emits, on the most 

The Flying Woman 


primitive and human level, all those things that Johnny — and Charles before him 
— could never express in words. 

"You see that," says Johnny to the banshee. "You see that, don't you?" 

She does. 

Seconds later the sniffles stop, the clouds part, and the Wickley Street West 
banshee is gone, vanished back to whatever world of ancient Celtic mythology she 
came from. Leaving behind her a wake of beautiful, wonderful, fantastic, incredible, 
amazing, marvellous, miraculous in that oh-my-gods-I-can't-believe-it's-real way... 
silence. That's right: for the first time in almost two weeks, silence descends over 
Wickley's most infamous tenements. 

Still hanging out the window, one hand curled around the sill, Johnny waves. 
Turning back he says, "I guess it's over." 

Although it isn't, not quite. In fact it isn't really over until two days later, when Mrs 
Mary Barden (nee O'Neill) dies in her bed, her loving husband holding one hand, a 
certain Persian till-jockey holding the other. Because despite Mack's suspicions about 
my Middle Eastern origins, he still understands that I am an angel, and that an angel's 
place — whatever their faith, whatever their location, and hell, whatever Charlie 
Darwin has to say on the subject — is by the side of humankind. 

It's a horrible thing to watch a husband lose his wife a second time. There are 
tears, and there are screams, and there are howls, there are recriminations and 
apologies and final promises of pure, hapless love. And after it's all over — really 
over — I return to my flat, where my melancholy is tempered somewhat when I find 
Johnny Flannery of 12A in the process of stealing back my chocolate cake. 

"Me old lady came home with women's problems, if'n you know what I mean," 
he explains, "and I got to get her off me back somehow, and I figured that well, you 
don't eat, right, you ain't using it for nothing, and there's nothing a woman on her 
monthlies likes better than a big oP chocolate cake..." 

I sigh. With a little persistence, it seems that Celtic fairies can change their 
century-old habits, but when it comes to your average Wickley resident? Not a 
bleeding chance. 

'Just take it, Johnny," I say, closing the door. 


Drinking from the Saucer 

...Nigel Stones 

Blackfella, whitefella — makes little difference to me. Makes no difference to them 
what's in charge. Sheilas though, that's a whole other story. Ain't seen any of them 
since the aliens took me an' I'm guessin' that's years back now. 
You list'nin' to me? 

Poor bastard. Bet you believed all that stuff about weather balloons and ball 

Hauled you from your bed too, I bet, like some fat carp skull-dragged outta the 
dam. Right now you prob'ly all wide-eyed an' worried what'll happen to you. Well 
you need ta listen. Listen real good 'cos what I gotta tell you might be the only 
thing to keep you alive. 

There's two reasons they could be playin' this to you. First is they picked you to 
replace me. Just lucky you got me to tell you it all an' not have them push it into 
your head. When they done me, it near killed me. 

I never seen the aliens. They can't stand to look at us. We makes their guts turn. 
They told me that — pushed the thought so hard into me head I thought the pain 
was gonna kill me. That's why they need the likes of you an' me to do their work. 

I better start with your instructions before they give me a helpin' of pain just 
for takin' too long. 

The doors, then — look around an' you'll see them: purple, red, green, blue, 
yellow, orange. See how each has got a button? When they're lit, you can press 
them an' the door opens. 

The purple door is to your room. The tube stickin' out of the wall in there is 
for food. The food looks like clear porridge an' tastes like snot, but you'll get used 
to it. The hole in the floor is the dunny. You best sit on it an' not try to aim, cos if 
you get any round the edge or on the floor, the aliens'll give you a dose of head- 
splittin'-in-two an' you don't want that. 

Through the yellow door is the shower. If you do end up missin' the hole an' 
shittin' on the floor then you'll need a mouthful of water from there to clean it up 
an' stop the pain. Mostly you'll be needin' the shower though to wash the bodies. 
You get the bodies from the room with the red door. Make sure you wash 'em 

Like I said, the bodies are in the red room. They'll be naked an' out cold. Just 
drag them to the shower an' clean them up. 

Drinking from the Saucer 


The hard job is through the blue door an' the green one. This is where the racks 
an' trays are. You need to drag the clean bodies onto the trays an' then lift them up 
onto the racks. I've had to shift some heavy bastards in me time here, but the job's 
gotta be done. Once you fill the racks you need to leave the room quick-smart or the 
pain'll start. The door locks behind you an' after a while, when the button lights back 
up, the trays'll be empty. 

I'll tell you what happens to the bodies; save you the pain of them tellin' you the 
way they told me. The aliens make tea out of them. Yep, tea. They feed them into 
a mincer, dry what comes out an' then make a powder of it. Poor sods don't feel it 
though, so I guess that's somethin'. That's why you have to wash the bodies: so there's 
no dirt or deodorant or aftershave or nuthin' to muck up the taste. That's why the 
aliens don't take sheilas: just don't taste right. 

The aliens make two kinds of tea. The expensive kind they make in the room 
behind the green door. You see, when a man gets scared, there's all these chemicals 
that his body makes. The aliens, they like the taste of that. Fetches a good price. 

That's why the bodies you put into the green room have to go to the orange room 
first. You put them in there for a spell an' it wakes them up. They still can't move 
nuthin' below their neck, mind. The aliens don't want them jumpin' around while 
they feed their feet into the mincer. They want them helpless; knowin' what's comin'; 
feelin' the pain; frightened. 

I said at the start there was two reasons you might be listenin' to this. If you are 
lyin' naked on the floor in a room with an orange door and you can't move, you can 
scream now. 


Blood Debt 

...MP Ericson 

Rain pattered around us, tapped on the leaves of trees and settled in the rich 
brown earth that lay uncovered by our feet. 

Deep enough, the grave was. The diggers threw their spades over the edge to 
land with a thud on the wet soil, and helped each other out of the trench. 

Deep enough. Father would lie undisturbed for many long years to come. 

I looked at him. He seemed calm, untroubled that death had overtaken him 
after chasing him for so long. 

He lay on the bier, still in his fighting clothes. Blood drenched his rough linen 
trews and worn leather jerkin. The gash in his chest clotted dark with it. His shirt- 
sleeves were soaked, too, but the fabric at his right shoulder remained clean. I 
could see the line of my own neat mending across it, like an old scar, and I knew 
there was a scar underneath to match. 

One of a hundred injuries to leave their mark on him. The last would never 

I wished he had worn ringmail. For years I begged him to wear it. He only 
laughed, and said the day he put one of those jingling jackets on was the day he 
would give up fighting and take to clownery instead. I wished he had. Anything 
but lie dead before me now. 

Ardwyad touched my arm. I nodded without looking up. I wanted to see only 
Father, in these last few moments before the earth cloaked him from my sight. 

The diggers lifted him carefully off the bier, lowered him into the grave with 
ropes slung under his body, and drew the coils out again. 

There was a moment of silence. Even the rain eased, as if earth and sky both 
knew that Father was dead and the world would never be the same. 

"A good man," Ardwyad said. 

It broke the spell. The diggers picked up their spades, and covered Father's still 
form with only a few strokes. They knew their work. Perhaps they had performed 
this task for a hundred men or more. 

Some of those had fallen to Father's sword. 

All comers. That was how he made a living. Bets taken, all comers, terms by 
arrangement: first touch, first blood, to the death. 

I watched him often. Mother never let me, but after she died the fighting-pits 
became my home. I made money at the cock-fights, both matching and betting, 

Blood Debt 


and learned to give as I got with the men who thought it amusing to find a young 
girl at the fights. 

Father kept an eye on me. So did his friends, especially Mael, the overseer. Mael 
and Father had travelled together for years, back when they both made their living as 
adventurers, before they settled down and got married. 

Ceri, Mael's wife, treated me like a daughter. Perhaps I should have been more 
grateful, but I never cared much for her well-swept house. I wanted to be with Father, 
and Father was at the pits from dawn until dusk. 

He trained me during quiet hours, and that was how I came to learn swordfighting. 
Of late I made some money that way, too. First touch only, Father insisted, and called 
me his treasure trove, and said he would not let any man take me from him. He even 
told Ardwyad that. 

"Over my dead body," he said, with a look in his eyes that I knew, the one that 
meant he was not to be moved. 

Ardwyad told him not to call for trouble. 

I had a terrible sense that Ardwyad would ask me, now when I had to say no. 
Because there was something else I had to do, before I could think of marrying. A task 
that must come before everything else, and would likely cost me my life. 

Blood debt, Father called it. He took on men in the pits over that, men whose 
fathers or brothers or sons he had killed. They wanted revenge but got death instead. 
As I would. The fighter who bested Father would dispatch me without blinking. Still I 
had to do it. I had to find her and kill her, without thought of anything else. 

"Where's she staying?" 

Ardwyad turned to look at me, his mailcoat rattling as he moved. 

"You're not going near her." I knew that tone as well as I knew Father's look: the 
'don't mess with a King's man' voice. "She'll kill you before you draw. She's good 
— I've dealt with her before. It was a fair fight, Drysi. Your father knew the risks and 
accepted them. The last thing he'd want you to do is throw your own life away trying 
to avenge him." 

That was true. Ardwyad knew Father. They understood each other well, far better 
than you might have thought from the way they spoke to each other. 

Oh, the things they used to say. Father called Ardwyad an unblooded pup, and a 
rich men's errand-boy, and a pathetic excuse for a fighter. Ardwyad, undaunted, called 
Father an old-timer, a has-been, a nobody, and a poor excuse for a man. 

I would snap that they were indistinguishable, which earned me either a cuff over 
the head or an affectionate hug, depending on what mood they happened to be in at 
the time. 

"It's quicker if you tell me," I said, "but I'll find her whether you do or not." 
He gave me an unloving look from shadowy hazel eyes. 
"The Wheatsheaf. You're not going there." 

The diggers smoothed the sides of the mound, and firmed the earth around the 
marker stone. Hundreds of other footstones watched me in silence. Some of the 
graves held drinking-bowls of tarnished silver, for the monthly offerings some families 
made to departed ancestors. 


M P Ericson 

"None of that, my girl," Father would say as we watched them walk past the pits: 
a procession of dour figures, black-clad and sombre, keeping an unbroken silence. 
"Don't give me one of those pissing-bowls, and don't waste time whining at my grave. 
Do you hear me?" 

I laughed, and promised. 

"Black's no colour for a pretty woman," he added if one came past us. "Wear 
something cheerful, and toast me on my way to the Hall of Warriors. Remember your 
father was never one for moping." Then he hugged me, and said some people seemed 
to love death better than life, but I was not one of them. 

Mother's grave lay nearby, sheltered by a great oak. We went there together 
often, and Father always told a story of how one of us had done something or said 
something that made her laugh. I remembered, or at least I seemed to remember, 
until every memory I had of Mother was one of her laughing. 

Father held my promise. I would not weep, nor wear black, and his grave would be 
marked by nothing but a simple stone. I would go to the Wheatsheaf and buy myself 
a beer, and toast him on his way. 

Then I would join him. 

"Thank you," I told Ardwyad. "For everything." 

He had stormed down from the barracks as soon as he heard the news, and he 
and Mael between them settled the funeral. There was nothing for me to do except 
tell them what Father wanted, eat the hot soup that Ceri brought over for me, and let 
myself be persuaded to go to bed. It did not seem possible that I should sleep, but I 
did, deeply and dreamlessly while Mael and Ceri sat in the kitchen with Father, and 
Ardwyad sat on the floor beside my bed, watching out the night. 

He smiled now, a little wearily, and put his arm around me as I turned to face the 

Men, all of them: fighters and trainers, swordsmiths and innkeepers. Father had 
many friends in the town. 

I greeted each of them in turn and thanked them for coming. Serious voices 
greeted me in return, told me that Father was in the Hall of Warriors and the feast 
there had begun. Mael, kind man, kissed me on the cheek and said I was welcome in 
his house if I chose. 

"Ceri said to be sure to tell you." 

I walked back along the road, with the footsteps of many men following me, 
turned into streets and alleys that no longer felt familiar. Outside the front door I 
paused in consternation. 

"I didn't pay the diggers." 

"It's all taken care of," Ardwyad said. "Don't worry. It's all been settled." 
Ceri had cleaned the kitchen and lit a fire on the hearth. A pot of soup simmered 
happily, trailing the scent of herbs. 
"I'd like to be alone," I said. 

Ardwyad gave me a long look, as if there was something he very much wanted to 
say, but not in anyone else's hearing. Ceri hugged me close and told me things would 
seem better in a few days. Finally they both went away. 

Blood Debt 


I got a bowl of water from the bucket by the door and quenched the fire. I pulled 
on my padded leather jerkin and strapped my sword to my belt. Then I walked out 
into the empty street and headed for the Wheatsheaf Inn. 

Ardwyad was already there. So were three other King's men. So was Tegvan, the 
innkeeper, and two of his oversized sons. 

There was only one woman in the room, other than myself. She sat by the window, 
where daylight fell onto her right arm. A long rip stretched down the sleeve. She was 
using her left hand to stitch it closed, and doing a good job. 

Her scabbard hung at her left hip, but that in itself meant nothing. Father often 
swapped his scabbard from one side to the other, to confuse potential opponents. 

Possibly a left-hander, but I felt certain Father had been killed by a right-handed 

She might be able to swap from one hand to the other. That was also a trick Father 
used sometimes, but he had never managed to teach me the way of it. 

"Always study your opponent," he would say. "Learn as much as you can about 
him, preferably before he realises he is your opponent. Every detail can be useful." 

She was almost as tall as Ardwyad, judging by the length of the legs that stretched 
out under the table. Broad-shouldered for a woman. Thick leather jerkin, shining with 
grease, scabbard the same. Nothing fancy, but quality goods and well cared for. 

I became conscious of a quiver in my stomach. Ardwyad was right. Against this 
woman I had no chance at all. 

Blood debt. 

Father scoffed at the idea. 

"What makes them think they'll do any better?" he would ask. "I've already killed 
their kin. Do I have to prove I can kill them too? Well, at least it's money. Isn't it, 

It was. Fighting to the death pulled in crowds, and made coins clatter in heaps at 
the betting- tables. 

"A pint," I told Tegvan. 
"I don't want any trouble." 
"You won't get any." 

He drew the beer and pushed both tankard and coin towards me. 
"It's on the house. Just don't get yourself killed. Your father would never forgive 

"To Father," I said quietly, raising the tankard. "In the Hall, if he is already there. 
If not, may his path to it be straight and open." 
"He's there. Don't you worry." 

The beer was good, as always. Tegvan specialised in a hefty brew of his own 
devising, which Father had taught me to appreciate. The excellence of it was one of 
the few things he and Ardwyad openly agreed about. 

"Another," I said. 

'Just don't get yourself killed." 

I carried both tankards over to her table, and sat down. 
"Have a drink," I said. 


M P Ericson 

She gave me an appraising look, such as Father turned on every man who entered 
the pits, and snapped the thread off with a sharp jerk of her hand. Slender fingers. 
Callused palms. 

"I heard you did well yesterday," I added. 

"Where did you hear that?" Her voice was a little deeper than I expected, though 
still womanly 

"Word gets around." 

She smiled very slightly, as Father used to do after a hard fight against a skilled 

"Who are you?" 

Dark brown eyes, not unlike Ardwyad's, with the impassive stare of a fighter. Rich 
brown hair — very long, almost to her waist — gathered at the nape of her neck by 
a thin leather strap and flowing over her back. 

"A swordswoman. Like yourself." 

"You don't look like one." 

I let it go. Plenty of men had said the same, and I had proved them wrong. 
"Are you staying in town?" I asked. 
"What's it to you?" 

"Nothing. But I could use a companion who knows how to wield a sword, and the 
man you killed had friends here." 

Again the unhurried stare, assessing my height and build and likely strength, 
noting the way I held the tankard in my right hand, noting the scabbard at my left 
hip, noting everything that could give her the advantage over me. 

"So that's why the local garrison is out in force. Making sure I don't cause trouble, 

"Plenty of men want to see you dead." 
"But no women." 
"None that I know of." 

She held my gaze. Painful it was, as if she had seized my eyeballs by thumb and 
forefinger and prised them out. 
"But you're no traveller." 

My clothes, I thought. Worn, yes, and stained by sawdust and sweat, but neither 
frayed nor torn nor dark with blood. My hands maybe, soft next to hers, clean nails 
trimmed close to my fingertips. My face perhaps, young and unlined. 

"All comers. I make my living in the pits." 

She tossed me a vivid grin that made me smile back before I was aware. 
"Now I've got you. I knew I'd seen you before. You were in the shilling-pit, day 
before last." 

The one-shilling pit. The fools' trap, Father called it, and pushed me into the wood- 
scented arena with an encouraging slap on the back. I had beaten every fighter's son 
in town in that pit, and most of the garrison recruits as well. Ardwyad came down to 
watch those and bawled out the hapless victims with a voice that thundered between 
the walls. Mael and Father watched him indulgently, and tried not to laugh. 

"Crossed slash and cut to the wrist," she said. "I saw you do it twice. Very neat. 
What do you want a partner for?" 

Blood Debt 


"I've thought about taking to the road. There's only so much money to be made 
from small-timers." 

"Place open in the master pit. Dead man's boots." 
Numbness spread through my limbs and throat and face. 
"I'm not ready for that. Nor the second pit, either." 

"You pay your own way and settle your own fights. If you draw sword or knife on 
me, you die. I leave tomorrow morning — made money enough to see me through 
for a while. Be here at dawn, if you want to come. If you're not here, I leave without 

"Got it," I said, and drank the last of my beer. 

Ardwyad did not follow me home as I left the Wheatsheaf. The light through my 
kitchen window had shaded to dusk when I heard the brief familiar knock on the 
door. He looked tired, but still he had a kiss for me. 

"How are you feeling?" 

"Fine. Considering." 

He put his arms around me and leaned his face against my hair. That used to 
comfort me, but now I felt only a chill through my insides. 

"I've talked to my troop leader," he said. "I'm due out on patrol tomorrow, but he 
says I can take base leave for the week instead." 

"Don't do that. I need to deal with this on my own." 

Ardwyad pulled away, and gave me a searching look. 

"You're not going to cause trouble after all?" 

I tried to smile. 

"You're right. I wouldn't stand a chance against her, and Father doesn't want me 
to throw my life away." 

"Swear to me you won't." 

I had never lied to him. Neither to Father nor to him. 

"I swear." It was easier than I imagined. "I won't go after her. I'd only die, and 
Father would be furious. Just think what he'd say if I turned up in the Hall before 
he'd settled in." 

Ardwyad laughed. The weariness vanished from his face, and the shadows from 
his eyes. 

"It would be an education." He sat down on his usual stool, the one that had been 
Mother's. "Have you eaten?" 
"Not since this morning." 

"Get a fire under that pot and some bread on the table. I'm starved." 

We ate together in comfortable silence, as Father and I had done evening after 
evening for years, ever since Mother died. Except when Ardwyad called on me, and 
stayed for the meal. There was not a moment of silence then. He and Father snarled 
at each other without pause, while I watched in exasperation. 

"Why did you always argue so?" 

Ardwyad swallowed his mouthful of bread. 


M P Ericson 

"We never argued." 

"Yes, you did. All the time — you never stopped." 

"Drysi." He said it as Father did, gently loving, a sound that was like a caress. "We 
never argued. Not really. It was just his way — and mine." 
I knew what he meant. Deep in my heart, I knew. 
"Stay with me tonight." 

There was a warmth in his eyes, a living fire, like the flickering embers on the 

"I don't want you to take any leave," I said. "I meant that. But I don't want to be 
alone tonight." 

"Of course I'll stay." 

He left well before dawn. I lay with my arms around him and my head on his 
chest, listened to the beating of his heart. 
"I've got to go," he said. 
"It's still dark." 

"After four by the courthouse bell." That was true enough: I had heard it strike. 
"My horse has to be ready before the six o'clock briefing. But I'll come back as quick 
as I can. Rough justice on the north circuit this week." 

The chill emptiness of him leaving my bed, the rustle of cloth and clink of armour 
as he got dressed. 

"Meant to have that strap end re-stitched," he muttered. "Nice little job for when 
I get back." 

"Don't ask me." 

"Wouldn't dare." He leaned over for a lingering kiss. "Promise you won't get 
yourself into trouble while I'm gone." 

Footsteps across the floorboards, the thud of the front door closing, empty silence 
as I realised I was alone. I lay in the warm hollow he had left in my bed, cradled the 
blanket in my arms, and fought back tears. Perhaps I should stay. 

Blood debt. 

I wiped my eyes and scrambled out of bed, felt my way to the water bucket, gave 
myself a cursory wash. It did not matter much, I would not live long in any case, but 
Ardwyad had left me sticky and sore. The cold water was soothing. I tracked down 
clothes and boots, hooked my belt on, strapped my sword to it. 

The sheets needed changing. The larder must be cleared. Hearth and floor should 
be swept. 

I did none of it. I simply walked out of the house, left the door unlocked and the 
key dangling beside it. Ceri would come over in a few days, worried because neither 
she nor Mael had seen me, and I trusted her to do what was necessary. By then it 
would not matter to me, because I would be dead. 

The courthouse bell struck five. 

Darkness faded, let me make out shadows and angles. By the time I came to the 
Wheatsheaf Inn, the eastern sky was blushing. 

Blood Debt 


Nervously I waited in the street. I dared not let Tegvan see me, and the danger 
grew with the light. If I remained much past six, Ardwyad's patrol would find me on 
their way towards the north gate. 

Even as I thought that, the door opened. 

She was fully as tall as Ardwyad, and I had not overestimated her build. With a 
brief nod of acknowledgement, she strode off. I followed. 
"Where are we going?" I asked. 

She walked fast. I hurried along, trying and failing to match her pace. 
"What's the rush?" 

"Wimp." That vivid irresistible grin. "I'll slow down for you today, but after that 
you keep up or travel alone." She shortened her stride fractionally. "I'm Karla," she 
said, as if tossing a scrap of food to a dog. 


"That's cute." 

I frowned. No one had ever called me cute before. 

"You don't know what drysi means?" 

"It's just a name." 

"In the south, it means thorny." 

'My little thornbush,' Father used to call me, when I was a child and had tantrums. 
I never thought anything about it. 
"You've travelled in the south?" 

"First rule of the road," Karla said. "Ask no questions. But as it happens, I have. It's 
not too bad. You're sure of a fight, if nothing else." 

The south gate yawned open, unattended in daytime. As we passed between the 
stone pillars, I realised with a shiver of the heart that I was on my own. There was no 
one to protect me: no Father, no Mael, no Ceri, no Ardwyad. I was alone. 

Karla pounded along the road, at a speed I could barely match without breaking 
into a run. My shirt was already soaked with sweat, the crotch of my trews likewise. 
My feet inside their plain leather boots were burning hot. 

"How long are we going on like this?" 

"All day. If you can't keep up, travel by yourself. I'm not your mother." 

I tried the mind-games Father had taught me. Detach yourself from your body 
and let it do its work; it is capable of far more than you imagine. Pain belongs to the 
body, so leave it there; do not allow it into your mind. Weariness is a failure of will, 
nothing more. 

It was so hard. 

Fields steamed around us. The sun peered over the horizon, shimmering in the 
misty haze. Workers moved through the green harvest, stooping and straightening. I 
realised with vague surprise that I could feel nothing below my knees. 

"Where else have you travelled?" Maybe if I could get her to talk, she would slow 
down a little more. 


M P Ericson 

"First rule of the road." 
"So what's the second?" 
"Give no answers." 

"And the third?" 

"Stick to those two for now." 

On we went, while the mist dissolved into sunshine. That faded too, as soft grey 
clouds brought a welcome breeze. 

"We'll stop here." Karla chose a grass-covered bank that dropped into a winding 
stream. I threw myself headlong on the ground, and lay there gasping. 

"You're in lousy shape," she said. 

Wisps of grass tickled the inside of my throat. I raised myself on my elbows and 

"Drink some water." 

At first I thought she was offering me some of hers, but the flask hung at her belt 
again. I realised she meant from the stream. 

Painfully I crawled down the bank. The water rippled cool over my hand. I 
dredged up a splash, and sucked it in greedily. 


I leaned my forehead against the cool damp earth, fighting back the tears. There 
was no way I could go on. 

"Move," Karla said. "Or I leave without you." 

I crawled back up the bank, struggled to my knees and then to my feet. My legs 
felt strangely detached from my body, as if a jerkin had been folded several times and 
pushed in through the hip joints. 

We walked on somehow. I kept moving, each step a fight in itself, my chest one 
single searing pain that would not ease. When we finally stopped, at a mossy dell 
wrapped in the golden glow of sunset, I had no thought of revenge, but was conscious 
only of a black exhaustion that pressed me to the ground. 

"You look like you could do with some sleep," Karla said. She had dug out 
something crunchy from her knapsack and was eating it, washing down each bite 
with water from her flask. I just lay there, struggling for breath. 

"I'll take first watch," she added. I had no idea what she meant, and did not care. 
I lay motionless, while the sun slipped below the horizon and the sky darkened into 
evening blue. The clouds had scattered a little. 

It got darker, and colder. The ground was hard underneath me, and a stone dug 
into my thigh. My sweat-soaked clothes turned cold and clammy, sticking to my 

I lay there, more uncomfortable with every moment but too exhausted to move. 
The stone cut a hole in my leg. Ice closed around me, wet clothes chilling fast. 

I thought of Father lying in a cold grave, and of Ardwyad sleeping in some field 
on the north circuit. If they could bear it, so could I. 

I was frozen now. Frozen. A whole building site of stones gouged at my flesh. 

Somewhere in the darkness, Karla stirred. 

Blood Debt 


"Midnight." A boot thudded into my side. "You're on watch. I want my sleep, 

Fragments of Father's stories surfaced in my mind. Watching out the night, taking 
turns, half share of the work. 

"Fine," I said. Sleep? In this cold, without mattress or blanket or anything at all? 

There was a rustle in the darkness. Karla yawned, and soon I heard her breathing 
slow. The bitch, I thought. She was sleeping. 

My mouth was parched. I was hungry, too, and I needed to pee. With an effort I 
crawled a little distance away, laboriously undid the drawstring knot, and extricated 
myself sufficiently from my trews to do the necessary. Then I crawled back towards 
my previous position as well as I could judge, and sat there feeling wretched. 

People did this out of choice? 

A free life, Father called it. Free of comfort, at least. 

Karla was definitely sleeping, incredible as it seemed. I heard her breath in the 

I could kill her now. 

The thought woke me up. My hand drifted to the knife at my belt. One stab to 
throat or heart, and she would never breathe again. 

Father would despise me. I knew what he thought of those who killed without fair 
fight. Rats, he called them. Worse than rats: cowards. For him there was no insult 
lower than that. 

I would be turned away from the Hall. No one wanted a coward for a drinking 
companion. Father would despise me, and I would despise myself. 

I let go of the knife. Better to wait until morning, challenge her when she woke 
and die under her sword. At least then no could call me by that name. 

My mouth really was parched. I should not have thought of drinking. My tongue 
stuck to the roof of my mouth, the insides of my cheeks stuck to my teeth. 

The ground was cold and damp. I brushed my hands over the grass, felt dew 
gather on my fingers and palms, raised them to my mouth and licked the moisture 
off. Again and again, reaching further out each time. 

I was tired, too. My head felt heavy. I began to nod, pushed myself upright again, 
stared out into the darkness with eyes that felt full of sand. Cloud must have returned: 
there was neither moon nor stars. Only darkness, and Karla's regular breathing, and 
my own weariness. 

When I woke, with a guilty start, the eastern sky was paling pink. I could see the 
crest of the dell, and a shapeless shadow that must be Karla. 

I sat there gazing at her while the light reddened the sky and the first thin finger 
of sunlight felt its way into the dell. 

Karla stirred, and yawned. She lay for a moment longer, as if listening, then 
stretched her long limbs luxuriantly. She rummaged through her knapsack, brought 
out a pale disc and stuffed it in her mouth, washed it down with water from her flask. 
I followed every movement with my eyes, like a hungry dog begging. 

"Right," she said, stoppered the flask and hung it back at her belt. "Ready?" 

"I'm thirsty." I had meant to challenge her. 


M P Ericson 

"Should have brought a flask." She stood up and slung the knapsack on her 

I struggled to my feet. My legs felt like sacks of grain underneath me. 
"I'm too nice." Karla took the flask from her belt and handed it over. "That's my 
only fault." 

I tore the leather stopper from the neck of the flask and poured the water into my 
mouth, choking and gasping and not caring. 

"Whoa!" She yanked it from my hands. "That's my water you're wasting." 
I could have cried. I think I did. 

If she noticed, she did not show it. She turned and walked away, falling easily into 
the long steady stride of yesterday I scrambled after her. 

We walked. One foot in front of the other, endlessly, hopelessly, while the clouds 
thickened and the wind picked up. Rain began to fall, a steady drizzle that turned 
into a downpour. I leaned my head back, gaping, let the blessed water run down my 
tongue and throat. 

The shower passed, and the clouds drifted away. The sun emerged, warm and 
bright. It dried my clothes for a while, until the sweat poured faster than the rain 
could evaporate. 

"We'll stop here," Karla said. 

We stopped. I lay on the ground, breathing heavily, and sucked the sweat from 
my shirt-sleeves. 

"You're not doing too badly." She leaned against her knapsack and watched me 
critically. "For a sprat. Better than I thought." 
I raised my head with an effort. 
"A what?" I wheezed. 

"A sprat. A newcomer." She grinned. "A virgin." 

"Very funny." I let my head slump back on the warm wet grass. Sweat ran down 
my forehead, down my neck, curved around my breasts. 
Whose brilliant idea was this? 

I closed my eyes and willed her to change her mind. Not time yet — please. 

"Move." Karla was already on her feet. I got up with an effort I would have 
thought impossible two days ago. 

We walked all that afternoon and evening, and stopped for the night by another 
stream. I drank and drank until I vomited, then drank again, not caring that the water 
was acrid and soiled. Karla chewed her discs and drank from her water-flask. 

"I'll take first watch," she said. "You get some sleep." 

I crawled away from the water's edge, slumped onto the dry soil between two 
giant tree roots, and slept like the dead. 

Dawn was spreading through the sky when I woke, and clouds hung gilt-edged 
above me. I stirred awkwardly and looked around for Karla. She was a little way 
upstream, filling her water flask. 

I crawled down to the water's edge and lay there with my face half in the water, 
cool ripples caressing my skin. I felt awful. 

Blood Debt 


"Ready?" Karla stood over me, grinning as if she found my plight hugely 

"You didn't wake me at midnight." It was only a croak, but I managed to get 
something of a sting into it. 

"I thought you could do with the rest. You're taking all of tonight's watch, 

My legs were working better today. Yesterday's rain had cleared the air, and the 
morning was mild but fresh. I felt hungry. 

Woodland approached the road, closing in over the fields. Soon we were in shade, 
surrounded by rustling leaves. The road no longer ran straight, but swept through 
bends and curves. Looking ahead, I could see nothing but forest. 

As I watched, three men emerged from the shadows of the wood. 

"This is where the fun starts," Karla warned. "You take the one on the right. I'll 
take middle and left." 

The gnawing hunger in my stomach turned into cold stream water. 

They stopped a few yards away blocking our path. Strong-looking men of average 
height, hessian clothes stained and frayed, plain stitched leather scabbards. They 
looked to have been living rough for a while: ragged beards, streaks of dirt over fabric 
and skin, blackened nails. Even at that distance, they reeked of stale sweat. Their 
scabbards were badly cared for, scuffed and worn, the leather cracked in places. 

Not fighters. Robbers and cut-throats, not honest fighters. 

"Ladies." The man on the left started the talking. "Going somewhere?" 

Karla gave him her impassive stare. "Through here." 

The man on the right grinned at me. I could see the dark gap of a missing tooth, 
and a knot where his beard grew over an old scar. 
"Why in such a hurry?" 
"No hurry," I said. 

"Purses," growled the first man. "Hand them over, and don't try anything. We 
might just let you live." 

"Can I have your word on that?" Karla asked. 

The man spat, and drew his sword. There was a rasp of four other swords being 
drawn in response. 

She was a little slower on the draw than I had expected, and she handled her 
blade as if it was a touch too heavy for her. I wondered if the fight with Father had 
tired her out. Bad luck for me if it had. 

The men moved in closer, looking satisfied. It was clear that we were not going 
to be too much trouble. 

Middle and right lunged for me suddenly, both at once. It caught me by surprise: 
I was prepared for only one opponent. I backed away swiftly, evading one thrust and 
blocking the other, having time for only a brief chill of fear. I had never fought two 
men at once. 

Karla turned, hewed at the arms of the middle man and sliced them both off at 
the elbow. I brought my blade around and stabbed it into the right man's stomach, 
pushing deep and hard. 

It was easier than I imagined. 


M P Ericson 

Father made me practise on pig carcasses. There was one strung up in the shed 
behind the second pit at times. Father said there was no great difference between a 
pig and a man. Mael told him to speak for himself. 

My opponent collapsed onto the path, screaming. He dropped his sword and 
clutched both hands to his belly. A purple mass seeped between his fingers, bright 
red blood streaming over the skin. 

I felt sick. Cold prickled at my face, my lips, my chest. Abruptly my knees gave 
way underneath me. I knelt on the path, stared at the screaming man, felt the bile 
rise in my throat. 

"What are you waiting for?" Karla's voice was cool and collected. "Finish him 

I shook my head feebly, striving for breath. 

"Wimp." She brought her blade down and slid its edge across his throat. The skin 
folded open. Blood flowed from the dark line and spread over the frayed fabric of 
his shirt. 

"Here." Something landed with a thud on the earth in front of me. A leather 
water-flask, its straps outflung like arms. "You don't want his, it's too bloody. Get his 
purse, though." 

I looked around. Two severed forearms lay beside me, one hand still clutching 
a sword. There was a rust-mark on the hilt, dark red as an open wound. A few feet 
away lay the body of the middle man, his arms ending in bloodied stumps, his throat 
severed. Back where the fight had started lay the corpse of the left man, killed by a 
neat thrust to the heart. 

I picked up the flask, opened it with shaking hands, drank the water. It was better 
than Tegvan's beer. 

"Purse," Karla snapped irritably. 

I closed the flask, slipped its straps around my belt and tied them together, then 
drew my knife. Around my opponent's neck ran a thin leather thong soaked in blood. 
I cut it, grimaced at the hot sticky mess, and pulled his purse from inside his shirt. It 
was light, but when I opened it I found six gold coins. 

"They've been doing well lately," I remarked, trying to sound as much in control 
as Karla did. 

"Not bad." She reached past me and took the coins. "Lousy fighters, though." 
I staggered to my feet, staring blankly at the carnage. 
"Should we bury them?" 
"What for?" 

I thought of rats and foxes, and birds with sharp beaks. 
"No reason." 

"Clean your sword and get moving." 

I wiped my blood-smeared hands and blade on my opponent's clothes, the way I 
had seen Father do. 

Many times I had watched him kill. It never disturbed me. I enjoyed the spectacle 
of the fight, the triumph of his victory. I saw his opponents as moving dummies. Never 
had I seen them as living breathing men. 

Blood Debt 


Or women. Father killed women too, in the pits. 
"Third rule of the road," Karla said. "Don't hesitate." 

We walked on, left the dead bodies to be ravaged by all comers. Although the 
woodland shade was soothing and pleasant, I saw nothing before me but the skin of 
my enemy's throat unfolding under Karla's blade. 

"Where did you learn to fight? Don't give me any of that 'first rule' stuff." 

"You'll get yourself killed. Actually, I grew up fighting. Mother and Father were 
swordfighters both, and they taught me. Made their living in the pits, same as you." 

"But you took to the road?" 

The grin vanished. 

"Worked the pits myself after Father died. Fair fight, the way he wanted to go. I did 
well enough." Shadows in her face now; shadows in her eyes. Still the same relentless 
speed. "When Mother died I didn't want to stay. So that's when I took to the road." 

The road swept through the woodland, and out into more fields bathed by 

"Town," Karla said. "Small. A few good inns. We could stay the night, if you 

"Suits me." 

The inn we settled for was much like the Wheatsheaf. Bare wooden floorboards, 
sooty plaster walls, plain tables and stools, excellent brew. Hot food. I ate as I had 
never done before, stuffing my mouth with roast beef and buttered roots and gravy- 
soaked bread. 

We were quietly immersed in the innkeeper's praiseworthy beer when a man 
walked up to me. 

This one was definitely a fighter. Dressed as plainly as the robbers, but with 
numerous rents immaculately stitched, and a padded leather jerkin over his shirt. 
Scabbard well-greased and shining with good care, although to judge by the scuff 
marks it had been with him a long time. Iron hilt recently bound with new leather, 
no trace of rust. 

"What's a nice girl like you doing here?" 

Very original. 

"None of your business." 

He grabbed me by the hair and wrenched me to my feet. I had the sensation of 
my head floating free of my neck, before I slammed into the plaster wall with a blow 
that knocked the breath from my lungs. 

"Watch your mouth, bitch." 

He walked towards me unhurriedly, not even bothering to lay a hand on his sword. 
I glanced at Karla. She had picked up her pint again and was drinking slowly, paying 
no attention to anything else. The few other guests were watching with mild interest, 
seeing the assault as a short piece of free entertainment. The innkeeper was wiping 
down the counter, and looking resigned. 

No one intended to help me. I had only myself to rely on. 

I struggled to my feet. 


M P Ericson 

A fist lashed at my face. I threw myself aside, barely evading the blow, and groped 
for my sword. Two steps back, and I recovered my balance. The sword was in my 
hand, in a forward block. 

The whispered answer of a blade being drawn. Two blades. He held his sword in 
one hand, and in the other a long dagger gleaming. 

The sword sliced at my neck. I threw my right arm up and across, deflected the 
strike, knew that my body was wide open to the dagger-thrust. I could hear Father 
cheering as I flicked my blade down to the dagger-wrist and severed its tendons. 

A growl of pain, and the clatter of the dagger on the floorboards. I looked into his 
eyes and saw my own death. 

I blocked his thrust with my left wrist slammed up against his right, and drove 
my sword through the base of his throat. He knew then. I looked into eyes dark with 
pain and fear and understanding, saw the spark of life in them, saw it wink out as 
he died. 

"Well done," Karla said, setting her pint back on the table as his body slumped to 
the floor. "Very neat." 

I stood there for a moment or two, trembling. Then I knelt, wiped my sword clean, 
sheathed it. 

There was not much in his purse. I heaved him over onto his stomach and searched 
for the dagger-sheath. It was strapped to his jerkin with two wide leather bands that 
almost concealed it. The dagger itself was a beautiful piece of work: slim and keen, 
surmounted by a delicate hilt set with glass beads that shone in the evening light from 
the windows. The sheath was bronze, carved with intricate patterns inlaid with some 
other metal, gleaming silver cold. Together they made a treasure any robber would 
kill for. Now it was mine. 

I stood up on shaking legs, and walked towards the table. 

"Fourth rule," Karla said. "Watch your back. Seems you knew that one already." 

I sat down and reached for my drink. 

"You'll have to pay for the funeral," she went on. "Five shillings should do it." 

No one would come to see a travelling ruffian buried, nor put a footstone on his 
grave. He would be collected by cart and taken to the burial pits outside town, where 
the bodies of hanged criminals were dumped. The carter's fee and something for the 
cleaning was all that was required from me. I counted out five shillings from the 
man's purse and put them on the table. 

"Blooded at last." Karla grinned at me. "How do you feel?" 


I wanted to scream, or vomit, or burst into tears. Instead I simply sat there, trying 
to emulate her ease. 

I could not kill her, I realised, looking into the hazel eyes. I could not kill anyone, 
ever again. 

The guests at the other tables, after a general murmur of surprise at the way things 
had ended, began to settle back into the business of drinking. No one wasted another 
glance on the body on the floor. 

I turned the dagger over in my hands, wondered how much it was worth. 

Blood Debt 


"Showy," Karla said. "You're better off leaving it. Someone's bound to spot you 
with it and start asking questions. King's men, maybe, and you don't want to mess 
with them." 

"I'll just tell them I found it on the road. It's the usual answer, isn't it?" Father's 
stories had taught me that. 

"You could," she conceded. "If you want to hang." 

At the table where the man had been sitting, a battered knapsack remained. Mine. 
I went over and picked it up. 

A couple of stable-hands came in with a stretcher. They heaved the body of my late 
enemy onto it, showing neither surprise nor disgust, and carried him outside. 

I brought the knapsack back to our table, undid the straps, rummaged through 
the few belongings. A woollen cloak, stained and worn with travel but neatly mended 
in several places. A half-empty jar of tallow for greasing, a few rags, a small pouch 
containing needle and thread, and a comb. 

Not much to leave behind after a whole life. 

I threw the dagger in with the rest, and strapped the knapsack closed. 
"Now what?" 

"Now," Karla said with relish, "we get seriously drunk." 

She could hold her beer. As I staggered up the stairs to my room, Karla was dicing 
with another adventurer and looked set to drink him under the table. 

The bed was soft and warm and comfortable. I threw myself on it without thinking 
to wrap the blanket around me, and was asleep in a moment. 

When I woke in the chill of dawn, I had a vicious ache in the side of my head and 
the taste of sawdust in my mouth. 

Cautiously I eased myself out of bed, drank the last of my water, and ventured 
downstairs. Karla was already having breakfast. 

"Wimp!" she yelled, cracking my head open. "You look like a corpse." 

"Feel like one." 

The floor had been scrubbed. There was no trace of blood on the worn planks. 
"Breakfast," I told the innkeeper. He brought me a loaf of bread, a fist-sized piece 
of cheese, and a pint of beer. I pinched off a corner of the loaf and nibbled on that. 
"Hurry up," Karla said. "We leave at sunrise." 
"What's the rush?" 
"Who's rushing?" 

I felt so ill. I looked at her cheerful face, and thought of letting her leave without 


"I'm ready." I put the bread and cheese into my knapsack, left the pint untouched. 
Beer for breakfast. What madman thought of that? 
She stood up. 

It was. High time. 
I felt too sick to fight. 


M P Ericson 

We stopped at a well to fill our water-flasks. The sky was clear and bright above 
us, blushing in the east. I took the opportunity to rinse my face, yesterday's bath 
already a distant memory. I wanted a cosy bed, a bowlful of broth, some soap and a 

What I got was a solid day of walking. 

That evening, as I ate my bread and cheese, I made a pact with myself. In the 
morning, I would challenge her. 

Karla lay stretched out on the grass, her eyes closed in simple enjoyment. 

"Fifth rule," she said. "Equal share of the work. You still owe me a full night's 

I leaned my head on my arms. I had forgotten. 

The sky above us slowly darkened to ink. Karla faded to an indistinct shape, 
motionless on the ground beside me. Like a corpse, I thought, my heart wrenching. 
Like Father, or the countless many he had killed in fair fight, or the man I killed 

Tomorrow it would be me. 

First rule: ask no questions. But I had to talk, if only to keep myself awake. 
"When did you get blooded?" 
Karla stirred. 

"What? Oh, it was years ago. Fifteen years, maybe. In the pits. I'd never fought 
to the death before, but I needed the money. This adventurer showed up, giving me 
some crap about how women should stick to having babies — you know the kind of 

I nodded, invisible in the darkness. 

"So I said: 'Let's make it interesting. To the death?' He just went pale. Of course 
he couldn't refuse, not after all the bragging he'd done in everyone's hearing. Tried to 
stammer something about it not being fair on me, and got filthy looks from the crowd. 
In the end he just said: 'Fine.' Lousy, he was. Couldn't parry to save his life." 

She spoke so easily, so calmly. 

"It didn't get to me until a couple of days later, when I was cleaning my boots. 
There were bloodstains on them and I hadn't got around to doing anything about it. 
So there I was, scrubbing away, and suddenly I started to throw up. Had to buy new 
boots. That wasn't so good." 

"What did you need money for so badly?" 

"Mother." It was more of a sigh than a word. "She was dying — had to be cared 
for, had to have something for the pain. Took her forever." 
"But, I thought you said she died in a swordfight." 

"I said she was a swordfighter. Father died in fair fight. Mother didn't." The voice 
from the darkness was cold and clipped, without emotion. "She wanted to. Said it 
was the only way for a fighter to go. So she fought to the death whenever she could, 
without armour, left-handed. In the end she fought with one hand tied behind her 
back, and she still won. In the end, she died in her bed. Painfully. Took a long time." 

The night was cold. I shivered, and listened to the voice of the living dead. 

"Don't give me any of that Hall of Warriors crap," Karla said. "She's there. She 
didn't die fighting, but she's there." 

Blood Debt 


My eyes burned. 

"Of course she is," I said. 

It was a long night, but it ended. When morning came in shimmering violet, 
quietly stealing over our little camp, I was ready for death. I reached out and gripped 
Karla's shoulder, felt the muscles strong under her dew-damp shirt. 


"You're learning." Hazel eyes teased mine. Tousled strands of long brown hair 
slithered over her leather jerkin and tickled my fingers. 
It had to be now. 
"That man you killed," I said. 
"Which one?" 

There had been so many. Countless many. 
"The last one. In the master pit." 

"Him?" Her eyes brightened. "Bloody good, he was. Best fight I ever had. Crowd 
loved it." 

They did, I knew: I heard them roar. I thought it was Father making the kill. 
Karla stretched, then got to her feet. 
"What about him?" 

I watched her wordlessly. Tall and strong she stood, in her linen clothes and 
leather armour; moved with the ease of a fighter in her prime. 
I could hear the roar of the crowd. 
"He was my father." 

There was no frozen moment, no hesitation. Her hand touched the hilt of her 
sword before her eyes met mine. 

"Blood debt." Her voice was level. "Is that what all this was about? I'll tell you for 
free you haven't a chance. You're nothing like him." 

That hurt. I tried to keep my voice steady. 

"Maybe not." 

"So I've already killed your father. Do I have to prove I can kill you too?" 
I rose, and put my hand on the hilt of my sword. It felt strange. Colder and harder 
than it had ever done before. 
"You do." 

She was fast. Much faster than I expected. Two steps back were barely enough. I 
took another, and another. She lunged for the heart, the thrust that killed Father, and I 
was ready for it. I countered with a crossed slash, flicked my blade forward and down 
for the cut to the wrist of her sword-arm. 

The bitch evaded me. She had studied me before I knew I was her opponent; 
learned how I fought, decided how to respond. Her free hand shot out and grabbed 
my sword-arm hard. My legs were kicked from underneath me and I landed heavily 
on the ground, felt an agonising crunch in my wrist, felt my sword slip from my 


M P Ericson 

"I ought to kill you." Karla's boot leaned heavy on my chest. I stared up along the 
glinting blade that pricked my throat. "If you were anyone else, I would. Got that?" 
She was not even out of breath. 

"But I'm a nice person, and you're a silly child who doesn't know what she's doing. 
Cross my path again, and you die." 

The weight vanished from my chest. She stepped away from me and sheathed her 
sword. I lay motionless. 

"Sixth rule. Equal share of the takings. But if you turn on your partner, that's 
forfeit along with your life." 

Slowly I reached for my purse with my one functioning hand, untied the straps 
and tossed the purse towards her. She kicked it aside. I heard the dull clatter as it 
struck the sword I had dropped. 

"Now you know the rules of the road. Your fighting's crap, but you've got some 
talent. Work hard and you might just survive a few years more." 

I stared up at her. The dark eyes were impassive. 

"I'll let you live, for now. Because I could kill you as soon as look at you, and you 
must have known that, but you came after me anyway. Because you're young and 
stupid and desperate, and you think you've nothing to live for." She shrugged. "Call 
it the repayment of a debt." 

I said nothing. 

"You're stubborn, too," she added. "I don't want you getting any ideas about 
coming after me again. So I'll put you out of action for a while. Nothing personal." 

Her boot thudded into my ribs, hard enough to throw me over on my side. The 
next blow was to my lower back. Someone screamed. It was me. 

"Seventh rule," Karla said. "I made this one up myself. Shit happens." 

That was when I died. I must have died, because one world could not hold so 
much pain. 

When I came to, Karla was gone. I lay weeping in a puddle of vomit. After an age 
I hauled myself up onto my elbows, away from the mess and the stench. Damp dirt 
smeared over my fighting clothes. 

My sword and purse lay on the ground several feet away. I dragged myself over to 
them and fastened them to my belt. 

Then I began to crawl back towards the town. 

"Thank you," I told the innkeeper, pushing a gold coin across the counter. He 
deserved it. Not even Father could have taken better care of me, these last few days. 
"Glad to see you on your feet." 

Karla had been thorough. My body felt as if it had been chopped up and boiled in 
vinegar. Nonetheless I could walk, and I could fight. 

It was only morning yet, the daylight chill through the windows. I toyed with the 
notion of having a pint before leaving, then dismissed it. Were I to run into trouble, I 
would need to have my wits about me. Beer for breakfast would not help with that. 

Blood Debt 


The inn door opened behind me. I glanced over my shoulder, caught a gleam of 
armour, took my hand from the hilt of my sword. King's man. He was no threat, and 
if I drew sword or knife on him, I would hang. 

The next question was where to go. South was a bad idea, with Karla on the road 
ahead of me. North meant home, and I was not ready for that. Which left a choice 
of east or west. 

A free life, Father called it. I understood him now. It was a strange but uplifting 
sensation, to know that I could go anywhere I wanted, and do anything I pleased, so 
long as I was prepared to settle my own fights. 

Free, but lonely. 

A large hand gripped my shoulder. 
"Where have you been?" 

I turned. Ardwyad was white with fury, and there was death in his eyes. 
"On the road," I said. "Good morning, officer." 

I thought he would punch me. For a moment his hands clenched into fists. 
"Fine," he spat. "If that's how you want it. You're under arrest." 
"What for? You can't arrest me without charge." 
"You'd be surprised what I can do." 

We stared at each other, locking eyes. Never mess with a King's man. Even Karla 
told me so. 

"Don't make me disarm you and tie you to my horse as well." 
He meant it, I realised in amazement. He actually would. 

The innkeeper pretended to be fully occupied with wiping down the counter. 
There were no other guests in the room. There was only me and Ardwyad. 
"I'll come quietly, officer." 

"That yours?" He picked up my knapsack with one hand, seized my arm with the 
other and dragged me out of the inn. A chestnut horse was tied to the rail outside. 

"Mount," Ardwyad said, and strapped my knapsack to the saddle, next to his 

I heaved myself up awkwardly, having no experience of riding. He grabbed my leg 
and threw me the last yard. 

"You're useless," he muttered, mounting behind me, forcing my thighs against the 
pommels. "I don't know why you're still alive." 

"Luck, skill and judgement." I felt happy and careless and free. Even the 
thundercloud at my back could not damp my spirits. 

He put his arms around me, rested his face against my hair. Two days' worth of 
stubble prickled the skin of my scalp. 

"You witless fool." 

"I know," I said, and leaned into his comforting embrace. "I love you too." 

"How do you think I felt when I came back to find you gone?" Ardwyad asked me 
a few days later, as we sat together beside Father's grave. 
"How do you think I felt when Father died?" 


M P Ericson 

He made no answer, only gazed at the bare earth, absently reached out and picked 
a stray wisp of grass from it. 

"First I thought you'd changed your mind," he said. "About me. Then I thought 
it had all got too much for you — that you'd — " He was silent again, tearing the 
innocent wisp into pieces. "Then I went to Ceri's. Have you any idea what she's gone 
through, finding you'd vanished like that? Not a word to anyone, as if nobody matters 
but yourself." 

"Seventh rule of the road. Shit happens." 

"I went back to barracks and talked to my troop leader, and got him to talk to the 
captain. Next morning the word goes out for every patrol on every route to ask after 
you. Because by then I'd realised you lied to me." 

Father never wanted an offerings bowl, but his grave looked forlorn without one. 

"So I thought to myself: she's gone after a master swordswoman, like the fool she 
is. She knows I'm doing the north circuit, so where's she most likely to be heading? 
South. I talked to my troop leader again, and he's sick of the sight of me, but he gave 
me leave to chase after you. Of course I knew you were already dead, but I still meant 
to find you." 

Ardwyad's eyes were darker than I had ever seen them, dark with anger and fear. 
Desperate fear. 

"Find you," he repeated. "Then find her, and kill her." 
"She might have killed you." 
"I'd have chanced it." 

I thought of the pain I had carried in my heart since the moment I saw Father's 
body lying motionless in the master pit, his blood soaking into the wood-shavings 
underneath him. The smell clung to me even now. 

"I had to go after her." 

"You lied to me." 

"If I hadn't lied, you'd have stopped me." 

Ardwyad was silent. I met his gaze with an impassive stare. In the end, he looked 

"So what are you going to do?" 

"I don't know." I turned my face towards the sun, breathed in the scent of earth 
and grass and life amid the graves. "I haven't decided yet." 
Ardwyad found another wisp of grass to mutilate. 

"There's a place open in the second pit," he said. "Aidan's moved to the master pit, 
and he's holding his own. Nobody's replaced him yet. Did Mael tell you?" 

"He told me." Mael had called at the house one evening, asking no questions and 
expecting no answers, saying only that it was good to see me again, and that the place 
was there if I wanted it. 

"First touch," Ardwyad said. "Nothing more." 

"That's not for you to decide." 

Bare, the grave looked. As if something ought to be there, in the earth above 
Father's corpse: some sign of love and remembrance. 

"Whatever I choose to do," I said, "it's my decision. Not yours." 

"Fine. Do whatever you want. It's not as if I care what happens to you." 

Blood Debt 


There was a warmth in his eyes, a living fire, the same that flickered inside my 
own heart. 

"Marry me," he said. 

"So you can tell me what to do every day of my life? Not likely." 
"You need keeping in order." 
"You couldn't handle me." 

"If I can handle an inn full of drunk adventurers, I can handle a stroppy bitch like 

"Watch your mouth, errand-boy." 

Ardwyad smiled. A light breeze stirred the clipped strands of his hair, making 
them dance. 
"Marry me." 

The sun was warm and the grass was growing, and there was life still, even among 
the graves. 

"Of course I'll marry you." 

He leaned over to kiss me, his lips gentle against my own. No stubble now: he had 
bathed and shaved and put on clean clothes. He had meant to ask the question here, 
beside Father's grave, as Father always told him to do. 

"First touch," he said. "I'm not having anyone take you from me." 

In that moment I knew. As if I could see Father raise his tankard towards me, from 
where he sat by the long table in the Hall of Warriors, with Mother on his lap. I knew 
exactly what he wanted me to leave on his grave. 

The dagger hung at my belt, half concealed by purse and water-flask. I unstrapped 
it, and scooped away a few handfuls of earth. 

"What are you up to now?" Ardwyad grumbled. "That's a sharp piece. Where did 
you get it?" 

"Found it on the road." 

"Lucky for you I'm off duty." 

The dagger shone in the sunlight, glasswork blazing. I laid it to rest, watched its 
light wink out under the rich dark soil. 

Father would laugh as I told him this story, many years from now, when we sat 
together in the Hall of Warriors, drinking to each other's good health. 

"What was that for?" Ardwyad was frowning. 

I smiled at him. 

"Call it the repayment of a debt." 

The Assassin's Gentleman 

...Wade Albert White 

It is only proper in this day and age that an assassin of good social standing has 
in her employ a butler, someone to assist in keeping her domestic affairs in order. 
Thus I took it upon myself to enlist as soon as possible the services of a new man 
after the untimely demise of my previous — my sixteenth, I believe. Or was it 
seventeenth? Whichever he was, I must say, reluctant though I am to speak ill of 
the dead, the unfortunate fellow had a poor eye for booby traps. 

In any case, at the urging of the ladies down at the club and in an effort to 
keep up with current trends, I decided to try out one of the new robotic servants 
everyone had been raving about, a Butler XE-80. In trials they had supposedly 
registered a perfect record of performance, though I myself harboured more than 
a few doubts. I had spoken openly and vigorously on not just a few occasions of 
my reservations regarding automated valets, and so I kept my inquiries into the 
matter under wraps for the time being lest the good name of Ashleigh Yamamoto 
Wackrill become a laughing stock. 

For my own satisfaction, I decided to put Humbert — that being the robot 
whose services I engaged — through his paces, a sort of personal trial period 
between us if you like. The relationship between a woman of my station and her 
butler is a delicate thing, and while I do not in any way consider myself particular, 
I do admit that I like things done just so. Humbert was, without the benefit of 
firsthand evidence to the contrary, potentially of no more use to me than a walking 
toaster, and when one is engaged on a regular basis in life and death struggles, 
one needs to have certain assurances that at the very least one's toaster can shoot 

I had an assassination scheduled for that week — the vice president of some 
political lobby group or other, I think; I really don't pay much attention to those 
sorts of details — and it seemed to me the perfect opportunity for a test run of the 
whole affair. 

On the afternoon of the day in question, I was holed up in the library in the east 
wing of my estate with a cup of herbal tea — cultivated from my own biosphere 
— and some fascinating research on the history of garrotting (I must say, those 


Wade Albert White 

Spaniards really knew how to strangle a man). As I sat enraptured by images of iron 
collars, Humbert, my mechanical maitre, entered. His presence was rather hard to 
miss given that he clomped about in a manner not unlike a minor earthquake just up 
from the countryside for a visit — roughly a three point two on the Richter scale, I 
should estimate. In fact, truth be told, Humbert had a bit of an eccentric look about 
him even for a robot. He reminded me of an antique brass coat rack of mine passed 
down to me on my mother's side, except with the legs of an African rhino and eyes 
like the headlamps off a 1924 Model T Ford. The mere sight of him startled not just 
a few of my guests, though at least the vibrations announcing his imminent arrival 
afforded them some measure of warning. 

After the windows stopped rattling, I turned from my book to see what had 
brought him rumbling in and interrupting my peaceful seclusion when I felt I had 
made it perfectly clear I did not wish to be disturbed. 

He held forth a tray upon which sat a note. 

"A communication for you, sir," he said. 

"Madam," I corrected. 




I held my tongue. I pride myself in being one who is not often given to complaint 
and petty criticism, but I confess it pinched a nerve to have Humbert addressing me 
in the masculine. I'd had two technicians over for the better part of the previous 
afternoon to address the issue, but to no avail. They had lounged about, supposedly 
waiting for some part or other to arrive, eating sandwiches — my sandwiches, I 
should emphasize — until finally I shooed them out and bid them good riddance. At 
over a hundred quid an hour one expects a person to do more than just empty the 

This little SNAFU, trivial though it was, did not exactly make for a promising start 
between Humbert and myself. 

"From whom?" I said, leaving aside for the moment his manner of address and 
accepting from him the note in question. 

"A Mr. Birmingham I believe, sir." 

I winced. Chester Birmingham was my first cousin on my mother's side, and while 
I'm merely reluctant to speak ill of the dead, I'm disinclined altogether to speak 
anything of certain of the living. Chester had been the proverbial thorn in my side 
from the very beginning of our acquaintance. He was a snivelling, conniving windbag 
who talked incessantly about the fluctuating prices of genetically modified pork and 
sent me telegrams on an almost daily basis about absolutely nothing of importance. 
The only remark I can make that is in any way positive, and I emphasize that it is a 
mere footnote to our relationship at best, is that Chester afforded me considerable 
practice during our childhood in the honing of my skills as an assassin. I'm just sorry 
none of it ever took. 

The note read: 

Need fourth for bridge tonight. Can you come? 

The Assassin's Gentleman 


See what I mean? What sort of a ninny goes around sending telegrams across 
town in search of a bridge partner? Especially when he knows perfectly well that: (a) 
I detest the game, and (b) my house is closer to his than is the telegraph office. Not to 
mention that nobody's been sending telegrams for well-nigh three hundred years now. 
It was all I could do to stomach the fact that we were related, and even in that I was 
quite certain the attribution was due to the grossest of errors by some quack doctor. 

"My cousin," I informed Humbert, indicating Chester's likeness in a ghastly family 
picture my mother insisted I keep front and center on the mantle. Chester was the one 
in the middle with the flashing neon bowtie and the tail of a speckled trout dangling 
from his mouth. 

I deposited the note back onto the tray in much the same way one releases a 
child's beloved yet recently deceased pet goldfish to its watery porcelain grave. 
"I should like to issue a reply," I said. 
"Yes, sir." 

"A most emphatic 'No'." 
"Yes, sir." 

"In fact, make that two no's for good measure." 

"Very good, sir." 

"Can you underline it?" 


"Bold it out perhaps? Enlarge the font?" 

"I would have to check with the operator, sir." 


My left eye twitched at the mere thought of spending the evening with Chester 
and listening to him prattle on in that high alto voice of his as to whether Morgan & 
Sons were overpricing their rump roasts. 

"Humbert," I said, turning my attention to other matters, "I'll want us to be en 
route this evening no later than seven o'clock. Is everything ready?" 

"I took the liberty of laying out the black ninja pyjamas for this evening's 
appointment, sir." 

"Those will do nicely. And weapons?" 

"Pistol and blackjack, sir." 

"Scratch the blackjack. I'll require my sword for this one." 

"I regret, sir, I have received word from the armoury just this afternoon to the 
effect that the hilt is still under repair." 

"Yes, I am afraid so, sir." 

On my last assignment I'd manoeuvred myself into the unfortunate position of 
being strapped to a moving conveyor belt headed toward a spinning saw blade. I'd 
had no choice but to thrust the hilt of my sword into the works to monkey up the 
gears. Needless to say, this was less than favourable treatment for such fine thirteenth 
century Japanese craftsmanship. I emptied two full clips from my twin antique Glock 
18Cs into the fellow who'd trussed me up just to let him know how I felt about it. 


Wade Albert White 

The news of the sword dampened my mood. Political assassinations of this nature 
required considerable preparation and that certain delicate touch in which I prided 
myself. My client had specifically requested a beheading, one clean sweep of the 
sword, and I was loath to make any last minute changes. Still, one does what one 
must to fulfill one's obligations. But I knew the members of my Order would have a 
fine chuckle over this one. Byron Pillsbury for one — who couldn't choke the life out 
of a tree frog with the anchor line from the Titanic, I might add — would never let 
me hear the end of it. The pompous ass. 

"Oh fine, then," I said. "The blow gun and a couple of throwing knives in its place. 
But not the ivory handles. I save those for special occasions." 

"Very good, sir." 

Truth be told, I was more disappointed that Humbert would not see me at my 
best. Not that I advocate inappropriate displays of martial ability in front of the help, 
but it is good to establish one's competence early in the going. I made the mistake of 
slipping up in front of my third butler — a rather dreary chain-smoking chap — and 
thereafter he hardly let me get a word in edgewise (despite the fact the hacker was 
hard pressed to say anything himself at all). I'm still not sure whether I truly missed 
spotting the landmine that got him or if it was subconscious wish fulfillment on my 

My plan of attack that evening was simple. My target, the vice-whatever of 
something-or-other, was hosting a fancy-dress ball. I intended to incapacitate one of 
the guests at the gate and assume their identity, then once inside I would play it by 
ear. I assassinate mostly by instinct and consider it more of an art than a science. To 
my credit, I hardly ever kill the wrong person. 

Humbert and I established ourselves in an alleyway several blocks south of the 
address. From there we could make unobstructed observation of all comings and 
goings. We crouched patiently as one after another of the guests paraded by in full 
party regalia. Perhaps I was more out of touch with the current trends than I cared 
to admit, but I had never witnessed such a spectacle of buffoonery in all my life. 
Pharaohs and Arthurian legends and Roman Centurions walked the streets that night, 
along with several notable Greek orators and even a peacock at one point — that, or 
an overly elaborate golden pheasant. But all were in one another's company, and I 
needed to single someone out. 

Finally a trio of musketeers rounded the corner and headed in our direction, and 
I noted a slight shift in Humbert's stance. 

"Yes, Humbert?" I said. 

"If I may be so bold, sir, I believe the gentleman on the left has a game leg." 
"Who? The large Cistercian-looking fellow?" 
"Yes, sir." 

"Are you sure?" I said. I prided myself on a keen eye and I had made no such 

"I saw him favouring it, sir." 

The Assassin's Gentleman 


"He's still a ways off." 
"True, sir." 

I studied the man in question. 
"He seems sturdy enough," I said. 

"I am quite positive, sir. I was using my telescopic vision." 
"Very well. We'll take your word for it." 

Frankly I questioned his appraisal, but I decided to give him the benefit of the 
doubt. No good bringing him along to test his wherewithal if I didn't actually put it 
to the test. And soon enough the portly fellow in question did indeed fall behind. By 
the time he drew alongside our position he was well to the rear. A poison dart in the 
throat brought him down swiftly. 

Now this perhaps counts as excessive measure to some, but the last thing I needed 
was to have some chap come storming in half-cocked on sedatives and pointing the 
finger at me before I'd accomplished my mission. No, I had long ago decided better 
safe than sorry in these matters. A certain amount of collateral damage is simply 
unavoidable. And in my opinion any man of rank who fancies himself a warrior of any 
sort whatsoever, be it musketeer or mounted knight or armour-plated cyborg, and yet 
can't detect a poison dart launched in his general vicinity, deserves his fate. 

After relieving the poor bloke of his costume, we dumped the body in the back 
of the alley and ventured forth, I, according to the invitation, disguised now as 
the Honourable Justice Henry Richard Hollingsworth in a musketeer costume, and 
Humbert posing as his valet. 

The invitation saw us through the outer gate and up to the main manor. The 
grounds appeared well kept, though I blanched a little at the assortment of golden 
streamers, red and blue swirling lights, and orange garden lanterns employed liberally 
as decoration for the party It wasn't a mix to favour the design-conscious eye, and 
might best be described as the sort of display that either made you go looking for 
a strong drink if you hadn't already had one, or else inspired a certain degree of 
temperance if you already had. 

Once inside, I directed Humbert to perform some reconnaissance about the 
room's perimeter while I intermingled with the guests directly and attempted to 
ascertain the whereabouts of our host. I had barely advanced ten feet into the room, 
however, when I was accosted by two military looking fellows, Justice Hollingsworth's 
comrades in arms, the chaps who had left him lurching along in their dust en route 
to the festivities. From the look and smell of them I deduced they were both sloshed 
to the gills, which may well have broken some record or other given they'd only set 
foot on the premises ten minutes prior to myself. 

They more collided with rather than joined me, and one of them wrapped an arm 
around my shoulder — mostly for support, I gathered, from the way he leaned against 

"Henry, old chum," slurred the leaner. "We're to sing our old preparatory school 
anthem for a trio of rather fetching Amazonians over by the punch table." 
"Yes, Henry," chimed the other. "Amazonians." 

I am a woman of modern opinion, and do not judge nor expect to be judged on 
the basis of outward appearances, most especially as they relate to gender, but I 


Wade Albert White 

was a trifle offended, even given their current state of inebriation, that upon close 
examination these two still mistook me for this Hollingsworth who had obviously 
been a mate of theirs for many years. I mean, I'm a master of disguise and all, but 
a woman still likes to know she's not prone to being mistaken for a three hundred 
pound limping bald man. 

"Come, Henry," said the leaner. "We require your rustic baritone to woo these fine 

"Amazonians," piped the other again, this time with a slight hiccup. 

I have not survived this long in this business without the ability to think on my 
feet, and I knew no good could come of my tossing in with this lot even for the sake 
of maintaining a good cover. I put it to the lads that we might perhaps benefit from 
a brief warm-up in the cloakroom, a verse or two to loosen the vocal cords, and they 
took to the idea quite heartily. No sooner had I shut the door, however, and they began 
with, 'Dear old Wickham-Wattlesbury how long thy leafless ivy grows,' than I pumped 
a poison dart into both of them. I felt a small tinge of guilt, especially for the one 
who took it in the eye, but mine is a dirty business at times and blood on the hands 
is simply part of the dress code. Still, I cautioned myself to tread more carefully from 
there on out and to move as inconspicuously as possible through the crowd since it 
was not my intention to reach my target solely by means of attrition. I hid the bodies 
in the back and waited for a good opportunity to slip out unnoticed. 

I had yet to spot the host, so I mingled with the guests and entered into the mind- 
numbingly dull chit-chat one is forced to endure on such occasions. I complimented 
Henry the Eighth on his tights and Cleopatra Queen of the Nile on a stellar hairpiece. 
Emperor Constantine spilled wine on my sleeve, and I spent twenty minutes 
reassuring a very drunk Brutus he had in fact done the right thing. The peacock I 
avoided altogether. I didn't trust myself not to go reaching for the darts. 

It was during my conversation with Lord and Lady Macbeth that the whole affair 
began to unravel. While listening to her ladyship rattle on about some horse she was 
sponsoring in a race that month, I made a quick check for my target, and who should 
I see (and feel) lumbering across the floor towards me but Humbert. 

"Have you located him?" I asked. I had yet to see anyone myself who struck me 
as host-worthy. 

"No, sir, but—" 

"You're supposed to be watching for the host." 
"Yes, sir, however — " 

"Well, there's no time for small talk. Be on with it then." 

"Indeed, sir, but while I was out on the patio with some of the other guests I — " 

"Patio? Humbert, we're not here to socialize, we're here to kill a man." 

It was at that point I noticed Lady Macbeth staring rather intensely into her drink, 
like Rodin's Thinker contemplating a whiskey-and-soda. I grabbed Humbert by the 
silicone-coated flexible steel springs he called arms and turned him aside. Despite the 
bodies piling up, the experiment was close to being dubbed a complete failure. 

"You are up for this, are you not?" I continued in a harsh whisper. 

"Yes, sir. But a matter of some importance arose and I felt it best to bring it to your 
immediate attention." 

The Assassin's Gentleman 


"Now see here, Humbert, if this arrangement is going to work, I quite expect you 

I left off there, not because I was at a loss for words, but because at that precise 
moment the air was cut with a voice so shrill I could only hope it was the call of death 
come to thrust me into the very bowels of hell for my many and various sins. For if 
the voice belonged to the individual I instinctively knew it did, I was already in hell 


I am not ashamed to say I trembled on the verge on tears when upon turning 
around I came face to face with none other than my cousin, Chester Birmingham, 
carrying a plate laden with food and dressed in a peacock costume. 

"Ashleigh Wackrill! I say, old girl, what brings you here? I had you pegged as 
against this sort of nonsense." 

To appreciate fully the impact of Chester's voice, one must imagine a sound that 
begins just below the harmonic level at which crystal vibrates and moves upwards to 
the point where only wild animals respond in a frenzy. In fact, even as he spoke I am 
quite certain I heard several of the neighbourhood canines outside causing a ruckus. 

I tried to ignore him, hoping beyond hope that he would simply remove himself 
and his avian attire elsewhere, but trying to ignore Chester is rather like trying to 
ignore a flaming blimp in the sitting room during midmorning tea and crumpets. 

"What say you, Ash? Smashing jester outfit." 

I waved Humbert back to his duties. 

"It's a musketeer costume," I said, "and I thought you were playing bridge 

"Couldn't find three other players." He popped two appetizers in his mouth at 
once and chewed them openly. 

"Three? You telegrammed me to say you needed a fourth." 

"Needed a second and third too. No luck." 

It was all I could do to keep from reaching for my pistol. 

"Well how in the world is it you ended up here instead? This is a very exclusive 

"Scalpers outside," said Chester through a mouthful of sushi. "By the back 

This time I did actually reach for my pistol, though only to check and make sure I 
hadn't already drawn it out and shot him. 
"Go away," I said. "I'm working." 
He stopped mid-chew. "Really? Here?" 
"Yes. Now make yourself scarce." 
"Who is it?" 
"Shove off, Chester." 

"I'm warning you." 

"I'm reaching for my knife." 


Wade Albert White 

He turned to the Macbeths, who were still very much present and both staring 
harder than ever into their drinks. One might have thought them posing for the 
master Da Vinci himself. 

"Did you know our little Ash here is an honest to goodness assassin?" he said. "I 
mean, popping people off, just like that. She's quite good, you know. Won an award 
once, I seem to recall. 'Most Kills in the First Year,' wasn't it? Watch you don't say the 
wrong thing and upset her." 

He laughed. 

I left the lord and lady wide-eyed as I dragged Chester by the scruff of his 
feathery neck into a corner. I told him in no uncertain terms that if he did not walk 
immediately from that spot to the front door, not stopping so much as to even pick 
up his coat — Lord knows what would have happened had he discovered my work 
in the cloakroom — and then in a direct line to his house, that I would make his 
death long and unpleasant in ways I suspect he had never considered a possibility. 
Something in my quivering eyes must have communicated to him that I was quite 
serious, because he walked a line to the door so straight it would have made a master 
architect weep. 

Alas, however, the damage was done. When I was once again able to turn my 
attentions back to the matter at hand, I observed the Macbeths on the second floor 
balcony speaking with a man dressed as Caesar Augustus. The fellow was looking 
directly at me, and my instincts told me this was my target. Humbert was by this time, 
of course, nowhere in sight. I briefly considered tossing the whole business right then 
and there, but we Wackrills are a prideful lot and I knew, come hell or high water, I 
would see this through to the end. 

The toga shrouded chap motioned for me to join him, and I saw no other option 
before me but to hold my head high and march straight into the lion's den. Those Old 
Testament blokes had nothing on me. 

Caesar and I exchanged courtesies by the balcony railing. I learned his real name 
was Edgar Witherspoon, of the south-end Witherspoons, a detail I had either forgotten 
altogether or simply failed to learn in the first place, I don't recall which. He invited 
me into his library for a private audience, which I declined politely saying I felt a bit 
of a headache coming on, to which he replied he kept some medicinals on one of the 
shelves, which I remarked was a very smart thing to do, a compliment he accepted 
most graciously, after which I said I should stop monopolizing his attentions and let 
him get on with chatting up the other guests, to which he responded the guest he was 
most interested in for the time being was the one trying to 'off him. I conceded the 
point and accompanied him to the library. 

We walked through a maze of hallways and corridors that gave one the distinct 
feeling the builders weren't entirely sure themselves which way things were supposed 
to be headed. Finally, however, we reached our destination, and foolishly, though 
much to my own momentary joy, Witherspoon entered the room first. As soon as I 
closed the door, and while his back was yet to me, I whipped out my blow gun and 

I had no compunction about such an act that under most circumstances would be 
considered cowardly and most unsporting. I am an assassin, not a duellist. We don't 

The Assassin's Gentleman 


walk up to our victims and challenge them to cups of Hemlock at forty paces. We 
shoot, strangle, and stab at the first opportunity. From the front, from behind, above, 
below, it doesn't matter. We aren't choosy. Yes, of course, there is a degree of style one 
always wishes to achieve. We're not back alley thugs — well, not in the main, I should 
emphasize — but getting the job done is the first and foremost priority. 

So, as I said, I shot him. Or made the attempt anyway. But Witherspoon was 
obviously not as unfamiliar with the assassins' code (or lack thereof) as I might have 
thought, because no sooner did I have the blow gun in hand than it was knocked 
aside. The shot went wide and struck a bust of Vivaldi dead center, which under any 
other circumstances would have suited me fine. I'd never really taken to the fellow's 
style of music; too many shenanigans going on in the strings section. 

Before I could recover, twin metal arms encircled me from behind with none too 
little force and I found myself hard pressed to draw a full breath let alone extricate 

"Do say hello to my man," said Witherspoon. 

I thrashed about but my assailant cracked me a good one on the back of the head. 
It hurt like the dickens. 

"Please do not struggle, sir," said a familiar voice. "I am quite capable of holding 
you indefinitely." 

I craned my neck around in order to confirm with my eyes what my ears were 
already telling me. It was none other than Humbert. I felt the perfect fool. 

Witherspoon reclined on the chesterfield and lit up a cigarette. 

"I've studied up on you, Wackrill. I suspected my opponents would be looking to 
take me out of the running sooner or later, and I knew they would use only the best 
in the field. The best, you might be honoured to know, is you." 

I acknowledged the compliment with a slight nod. 

"I understand you have a marked aversion for robots," he continued, "but I must 
admit I find them rather handy myself at times." 

"I can see how they might possibly be of some use," I said. 
"When you're not the one they're attacking, of course." 
"There is that." 

Witherspoon gestured to some forms on a side table. 

"I had planned to bring you up on charges of conspiracy," he said. "I even had 
someone ready to draw up the papers. But Justice Hollingsworth seems to have 
disappeared for the moment, so I suppose I shall simply have to kill you." 

"A bit rash," I said. "I've always believed a person should fully explore the 
alternatives. If at first you don't succeed, and all that." 

He leaned forward and studied me closely. 

"Pardon me for saying so, but for an individual with your reputation I rather 
expected more of a challenge than this." 

"Yes, well, I've been having some difficulties at home, don't you know. Trouble 
with the domestic staff." 

"It is hard to find good help these days." 

"So it would seem." 


Wade Albert White 

He rose and walked over to the mantelpiece. Above it rested a fourteenth century 
Japanese sword — Kamakura period, if I wasn't mistaken — which he brought down 
and drew from its sheath. 

"I believe this is more or less what you had in store for me, yes?" 

"Give or take a century." 

"Then I shall send you off in the manner you intended for me. Ironic, don't you 

I had a particular distaste for ironies, partly because whenever I encountered one 
it inevitably meant I stood on the brink of almost certain death, and partly because 
having them pointed out to me meant I was usually in the company of that disposition 
of character I most thoroughly detested, namely, the literary smart-ass. 

"Any last requests?" he asked. 

"I could rather do with a stiff brandy." 

"I'm afraid I'm out." 

"Ah. Then no, nothing for me, thank you." 

Witherspoon swung round with a hearty effort, and I must say I can at least 
admire a man who puts himself fully into his work. None of that hack and chop stuff 
for him with lots of half severed limbs and victims scrabbling about on the floor 
crying, 'My God, my God.' No, he was obviously one to go for the single thwack and 
be done with it. I could respect that. 

Time took on that slow motion quality for which such moments are remembered 
— or not remembered as the case may be — and various events from my life paraded 
themselves before me. In fact, I was just recalling where I'd misplaced my mother-of- 
pearl earrings when I found myself suddenly thrust to the floor in the most ungentle 
of manners. The distinct clank of steel on steel reverberated through the air, followed 
thereafter by a strangled scream which was itself cut off by the thud of a blade 
cleaving flesh and bone. 

An object landed on the floor beside me. I opened my eyes and found myself staring 
into the face of one Edgar Witherspoon, albeit minus the torso and, by extension, all 
appendages located below the neck. Those lay in quite another direction altogether. 

I rolled to my side and looked up. 


"Yes, sir?" 

"Did you just decapitate Mr. Witherspoon?" 

The bloodied sword, now grasped firmly in Humbert's steel plated fist, along with 
the two formerly attached parts of Witherspoon, had already tipped me off to the fact. 
But it never hurts to double-check. 

"Yes, sir." 

"I declare, Humbert, can you not retain an ounce of loyalty to any of your 

"I assure you, sir, that I have remained loyal to you and only you throughout the 
course of this entire affair." 

I rubbed at the swelling lump on the back of my head. 

"Oh, yes, I must have missed that part. My apologies, then. A sound beating can 
affect a person's mind that way." 

The Assassin's Gentleman 


Humbert assisted me to my feet. 

"It is the matter I came to speak with you about earlier, sir, down on the main 

"Come again?" 

"I had come to tell you that I witnessed your cousin, Mr. Birmingham, whom I 
recognized from the photo you showed me this afternoon, spilling a drink into the 
open access panel of Mr. Witherspoon's robotic valet on the garden terrace. The 
mechanical gentleman had been experiencing some difficulties, and Mr. Birmingham 
claimed to be something of a handyman in respect to all matters electronic. It would 
seem he shorted the circuits quite thoroughly. Taking hold of the opportunity, I 
approached Mr. Witherspoon in his study — before he had emerged to entertain his 
guests — under the guise of seeking employment and inquired whether he was in 
need of my services. He scanned my records, but since you had not yet engaged me 
in an official capacity he gained no knowledge of our association. Coupled with your 
known aversion for robots, which he would most certainly have learned through his 
earlier study of you, I imagine he felt he was quite safe enlisting my help." 

"Well," I said. 

My head was spinning with the matter. I am not by any means slow-witted, but 
my life had changed hands so many times that evening I began to question whether 
I could trust even myself. 

"Well," I said again, because sometimes one 'well' simply isn't enough. "Good 
show, then, old bean." 

"Thank you, sir." 

"Really, it was quite spitting of you." 

"Not at all, sir." 

I rubbed my head again. 

"I believe I shall require a very strong drink when we get home, Humbert." 

"Very good, sir." 

"Ma'am," I corrected, hopeful. 




It was a small price to pay. 


This is Not a Love Song 

...Lyn Battersby 

This is not his Diane. This is Diane Before; before Ruby's funeral, before her birth, 
before pregnancy, marriage and courtship. This is Diane before his time, Diane of a 
past that doesn't include him. 

Carl peers through the kitchen window as she assembles her ingredients: a 
whole chicken, large can of mushrooms in butter sauce, bottled chilli and a jar of 
garlic. Measuring spoons and a casserole dish appear on the counter and she is 

She starts singing. It is Christmas and she is singing 'Oi To The World', her head 
banging along to The Vandals as she separates wings and legs from carcass. 

Carl hates The Vandals. In fact, Carl hates all things punk. The Slits, The Sex 
Pistols, Green Day; he disdains them all. Diane, his Diane, played punk when she 
was either alone or angry at him. She's not angry now, but she is alone. 

Not for much longer. In two and a half hours she will leave the house carrying 
a dish filled with Mushroom and Chilli Chicken and drive to her mother's for 
Christmas lunch. She will knock at the door and smile at the first person she sees. 
Her smile will falter when she realises she doesn't recognise him, but she will kiss 
him anyway and wish him a Merry Christmas. 

At that moment she will become his Diane. She will meet him for the first time 
and he shall know her for the last. 

But for now she remains unaware, content as she is to measure, pour and mix 
each ingredient. The song finishes just as she spoons the mixture over the waiting 
chicken. It never fails. No matter the song she can always make the preparation 
of this dish last exactly the length of the lyrics. From James' 'Laid' to Queen's 
'Bohemian Rhapsody' she always times it down to the second. Well, almost always. 
There was that one time when he'd hidden the ingredients and it took nearly a 
whole song to find them again. An hour of Johnny Rotten had been his punishment 
and he'd taken it like a man. 

The casserole dish is deposited into the oven and Diane disappears upstairs to 
shower and change. She will dither over three outfits but in the end will choose a 
short black skirt, red t-shirt and ankle boots. Her blonde hair will be topped by a 
red bandanna. 

It is time for him to go. He leaves his place by the window, walks the three 
kilometres to Ellen's house and hides in the shrubbery by the driveway. One day 

This is Not a Love Song 


Ruby will die here, at her grandmother's house, another statistic of cot death. But not 
yet. This is not that time. He is here for this day. This is the moment that counts. The 
future can take care of itself. 

He doesn't have to wait long. A black Ford slows, indicates and turns into the long 
driveway. A young man exits and locks the door. 

Carl stands. 

For a moment the two men stare at each other, as they must. This is the moment, 
the instant of recognition. This time is different, however. This time Carl is the one 
who raises his fist, knocking his younger self into the bushes and taking his place at 
the party within. Young Carl's life will begin later, when Diane finds him and tends to 
his wounds. Carl doesn't care about his younger self. That chapter is over. 

"Carl, you made it!" The door opens and his boss welcomes him. "Diane should be 
here any minute. I can't wait for you two to meet." 

He smiles at his future mother-in-law and silently thanks her for this second 

Ellen is passing him a beer when the doorbell chimes. 
"I'll get it," he tells her. 

Diane, his Diane, stands there, clutching the casserole dish with oven-gloved 
hands. Her smile falters, then reasserts itself. 

"Merry Christmas," she says as she drops a light kiss on his cheek. "You must be 
Carl. I'm so sorry about the matchmaking. My mother — " 

"Is a saint. Let me take that for you. Mmmmm. Mushroom Chilli Chicken. You 
have no idea how much I love this dish." 

She hands it over and follows him into the kitchen. Her mother is right. They do 
hit it off straight away. 

They won't last. Ruby's funeral will be the first. Diane's will follow not too many 
months later. And one night, six years from this one, he will crave this one meal and 
somehow his need will be enough. 

And the cycle will start again. 

The Witch Maiden and 

the Dragon: A Riff 

...Ellie Tupper 

Once long ago and far away, my dears, there lived by the side of the forest an old 
woman who had two sons. Perilan was the elder, and handsome and clever. The 
younger son was called Lump, and no one thought he was handsome or clever at 
all. He took care of their pig and their goat and their six chickens, and he helped 
his mother in their little garden. 

Well, one day there appeared, in that part of the world, a fearsome monster 
that some called a dragon. It had great long teeth as sharp as diamonds and it 
was covered with silver scales that no blade could dint. The monster's body was 
bigger than ten oxen, with two short legs in front and two long in back, and it had 
a tail six oxcarts long. It could not fly, but went by leaping, and every leap covered 
five leagues. Its eyes were the size of cartwheels and red, and when it stared at 
any living thing, be it chicken or churl, that creature was bespelled into walking 
straight into the dragon's mouth. It ate everything, corn and cows, horses and 
haystacks, but most of all it liked man. 

The dragon would leap once, twice, and land in a country. There it would eat, 
and what it couldn't eat it burned, so that soon the countryside was in ruins. Then 
the dragon would leap once, twice, and go on to the next. 

Soon it drew near to the land where Perilan and Lump and their mother lived. 
The king of the country sensibly sent out a proclamation that anyone who slew the 
dragon would win a cartload of gold. So of course many ambitious youths came 
out to have their try. But some took one look at the dragon's clawmarks, where 
it had leaped once, twice, and remembered they had to do the plowing at home; 
and some saw the ashes of the barns it burned, and remembered they had to chop 
kindling at home; so not many actually made the attempt. And those, the dragon 
ate, knights and nobodies, halfwits and heroes. 

So the king sent out another proclamation, saying whoever slew the dragon 
should have not just the cartload of gold, but his eldest daughter to wed as well. 
So more ambitious youths came from other countries, and some came back from 
their fields and woodpiles, and they all tried. And those the dragon ate too, prince 
and plowman, chopper and champion. Then it burned a village for good measure, 
and leaped once, twice, so that it was within a league of the king's palace. At that, 
the king sent out one more proclamation, that the man who rid their land of the 
monster should have anything he wished: gold, princess, the kingdom itself. 


Ellie Tupper 

When he heard that, young Perilan declared he would have a try at slaying the 
dragon. His old mother wept and begged, but Perilan only laughed and promised her 
a golden shawl with diamond fringe, and he took a loaf and his big quarterstaff and 
set out for the palace. Lump stayed behind to take care of the pig and the goat and 
the chickens, and help his mother with their little garden. 

As Perilan was strolling along twirling his big quarterstaff, he came upon an old 
pedlar-woman by the side of the road. Knowing it's always prudent to be polite to 
crones in stories, he greeted the woman courteously, "Good morrow, old mother." 

"Good morrow, young sir," the pedlar-woman replied. "And whither may ye be 

"I'm bound for the palace, to slay the dragon and win gold, princess, and 
kingdom," said Perilan. 

"You'll never slay it with that toothpick," said the old woman. "You'll need 

Perilan knew she was right, but he was proud of his big quarterstaff. Fortunately, 
he remembered in time that one must be polite to crones in stories. "And where might 
I find that?" he inquired. 

"You must travel far to the east and find the Witchmaiden of the Wood. She has 
all the magic power a lad like you could need." 

Perilan was clever as well as handsome, so he said shrewdly, "The east is a very 
big place. How will I find her?" 

"You have been polite to me," said the pedlar-woman, "so I will help you. Here is 
a special powder. Put it in your tea every morning and then you will understand the 
language of birds. They will tell you where to find the Witchmaiden of the Wood." 

Pleased that his courtesy had worked, Perilan accepted the magic powder and gave 
the old crone a kiss on the cheek in thanks. Then he turned and hastened toward the 
east. He traveled night and day, week and month, and every morning he put a pinch 
of the special powder in his tea. And it did indeed give him the ability to understand 
the language of the birds, so that he was never lonely on his travels but always had 
gossip and song to listen to, even if it was mostly about bugs and territory. 

One fine morning, as he strolled along, he noticed two birds in the tree above him. 
They were unusually beautiful, with long golden plumes and bright blue wings. One 
said, "There's a fine young lad with a big quarterstaff. Our mistress, the Witchmaiden 
of the Wood, would like him well." 

"Ah," said the other, "but how long would she keep him? She grows bored with her 
young men so quickly, and then she turns them into rabbits." And it sighed sadly. 

"If only they knew the secret to winning her heart," said the first. And you may 
be sure Perilan, down on the road, listened with all his ears. "If only a young man 
would stroke the middle toe of her left foot, she would be his forever. But they never 

"No, alas. And there are far too many rabbits as it is. If she'd turn them into frogs, 
now, we could eat them." 

Perilan blinked at this, but kept listening. Unfortunately, though the magic powder 
allowed him to understand the language of birds, he couldn't speak it, so all he could 

The Witch Maiden and The Dragon: A Riff 


do was hope the birds' conversation would turn, eventually, to where he might find 
the Witchmaiden. 

Luckily, the first bird looked up to say, "It's nearly noon. We must hurry back to 
the castle to sing while our mistress bathes." So they both took flight, and Perilan ran 
through the woods after them. The birds flew slowly, for their long beautiful plumes 
were heavy, so he was just able to keep them in sight. 

At last they flew into a clearing in the woods where there was a lovely greensward, 
bustling with rabbits, and in the center of the sward lay a crystal pool. The two birds 
flew to the topmost bough of a willow tree that overhung the pool, but Perilan sat on 
the grass at the edge of the clearing to see what he might see. 

Scarcely had he settled down, shooing aside a rabbit that promptly scratched him, 
when the loveliest maiden he had ever imagined appeared at the other side of the 
clearing. The two fabulous birds burst into music so beautiful it would have made 
wizards weep, but when the Witchmaiden opened her lips to sing with them, her 
voice was so exquisite the birds sounded like the scrape of a saw. 

Singing, the maiden shed her silken robes and stepped into the crystal pond. There 
she bathed and swam, and Perilan had never seen anything so graceful. At last she 
rose from the water, dried herself with an ermine towel, and dressed. Then she looked 
up, and saw Perilan sitting there under the tree with his big quarterstaff. 

At once she strode around the pool to stand before him, and her anger was as 
dire as a red dawn. "Who are you who dares spy on me?" she demanded, with a 
thunderstorm in her voice. 

"Only I, a poor youth," said Perilan humbly, but at the same time he reached out 
and stroked the middle toe of her bare and lovely left foot. 

The Witchmaiden smiled, the sun came out, and she said, "You are a fine young 
man, and I rather like your quarterstaff. Come with me and we will dine." 

So she led him to her castle and there they dined and rejoiced day and night, week 
and month. The Witchmaiden gave Perilan everything he wanted, and in his turn 
Perilan made sure to stroke her toes frequently. The Witchmaiden showed Perilan all 
over the castle, displaying riches beyond his imagination, and vowing they were now 
all his, as she was his. 

One day the maiden took Perilan up to the highest tower chamber in the castle, 
where on a low table stood a small wooden box. "Here," she said, "lies my greatest 
treasure, a magic ring. If I put this ring on the little finger of my left hand, I can fly 
like a bird. If I put it on my ring finger, I become invisible. If I put it on the middle 
finger, I become invulnerable to any blow or accident. If I put it on my forefinger, I 
acquire strength greater than twenty men. And if I put it on my thumb and speak, no 
one can oppose me." 

At once Perilan realized this was the magic he needed to slay the dragon and win 
gold, princess, and kingdom. But he was clever as well as handsome, so he said, "Can 
such magic really be?" 

"I'll show you," said she. So she put the ring on her ring finger, and instantly 
vanished from sight. 

"My word," said Perilan. "But remind me, what else does it do?" 


Ellie Tupper 

The maiden put the ring on her middle finger, and took Perilan's dagger and 
showed how it wouldn't even reach her skin. She moved the ring to her little finger 
and flew around the room, and then she put it on her forefinger and picked Perilan 
up with one hand. "Oh my," said Perilan. Last, the maiden put the ring on her thumb 
and said, "Let's go take a look at that big quarterstaff of yours," and they put the ring 
away and went downstairs. 

But the next day, Perilan stroked the maiden's toe and asked to see the ring again. 
The Witchmaiden could deny him nothing, so they climbed the tower and she showed 
him the ring. "Would it work for me?" Perilan asked. 

"Of course," said the maiden. So he put the ring on his middle finger and tried, 
first cautiously and then as hard as he could, to cut himself with his dagger, but the 
ring protected him. Then he put it on his ring finger, and the Witchmaiden stared 
around the chamber but couldn't find him until he pinched her bottom. Then he put 
it on his thumb and said, "Kiss me," but of course she would have anyway. So he said, 
"Stand by that far wall," and she obeyed. And Perilan put the ring on his little finger 
and jumped out the window and flew away, leaving the Witchmaiden first shocked, 
then stamping in rage, in her empty chamber. 

Perilan flew all the way home and landed in the courtyard of the king's palace. 
This startled the guards into a prickle of spears and arrows, but Perilan moved the 
ring to his thumb and ordered, "Tell the king I am here to slay the dragon and win 
gold, princess, and kingdom." Instantly the guards obeyed. 

Because the dragon's skin was covered with scales harder than steel, Perilan 
knew it couldn't be killed with spear or sword. But because he was clever as well 
as handsome, he thought up a plan. He ordered a huge steel pike be made, sharp 
as a needle at both ends. He ordered an iron cart be made, with iron wheels, and a 
helmet to cover his head with a vizor that was polished smooth as a mirror. Finally 
he commanded a chain be made, thick as a man's leg and ten fathoms long, and two 
enormous iron pegs. 

When all these things were finished, Perilan had the pike and the chain and the 
pegs put into the iron cart, and he put on the polished helmet and put the magic ring 
on his forefinger. Then with his magic strength he pushed the cart out to the field 
where the dragon lay. It was a near thing, because he would have to get the cart close 
to the dragon with his strength, then quickly switch the ring to his middle finger to 
make himself invulnerableto the dragon's attack. But this he managed, and when the 
dragon had exhausted its fire on him, Perilan lowered his mirrored vizor and stood up 
to face the dragon. The dragon glared at him with its cartwheel-sized eyes to enspell 
him, but all it saw was its own reflection. And Perilan moved the magic ring to his 
thumb and said, "Bite me." 

Twice enchanted, by the ring and its own red glare, the dragon had to obey. But as 
it struck, Perilan thrust the pike into the dragon's giant maw, pointed up and down. 
The jaws champed down onto the pike's sharp ends and stuck, still wide open. Then 
Perilan switched the ring back to his forefinger and tied the pike in place with the 
heavy chain, anchoring it with the two enormous pegs. The dragon roared in fury but 
couldn't move, and before it could summon more fire, Perilan put the ring on his little 
finger and flew out of reach. 

The Witch Maiden and The Dragon: A Riff 


And there the dragon stayed. It struggled and thrashed, and the blood from its 
maw hissed and boiled along the ground, and its tail beat a tremendous groove in the 
earth. But eventually from hunger and loss of blood it fainted, and then Perilan put 
the ring on his forefinger, picked up a boulder twenty men could not lift, and beat the 
dragon on the head till it was dead. 

The king called for a week of celebration, and during that week Perilan married 
the eldest princess in a ceremony of great grandeur, and the next day the king 
crowned him his heir in a ceremony of even greater grandeur. Prince Perilan had his 
mother and his brother Lump move to the palace with them. He gave his mother the 
golden shawl with the diamond fringe, but Lump had brought the pig and the goat 
and the chickens with him and refused any gifts, saying he was happy with what he 
had. They gave their little house and garden to the old pedlar-woman, along with 
enough gold to live out her years in great comfort. 

And they all lived happily ever after, until the Witchmaiden heard about it. 

One day as they all sat at lunch in the palace garden, a vast thundercloud rolled 
up and the sky grew dark and all the napkins blew away. Then out of the dark cloud 
flew a silver boat, pulled by two fabulous birds with long golden tails and sapphire- 
blue wings. One look at the birds, and it suddenly occurred to Perilan it was time to 
go fetch the brownies for dessert. 

But before he could leave, the silver boat settled to the lawn and out stepped the 
Witchmaiden. She wore ruby-studded robes of rich black velvet that swirled around 
her like storm winds, and thigh-high black boots with bronze toe caps. She pointed at 
Prince Perilan and commanded, "Halt, perfidious churl!" 

Perilan halted. "I was going to bring it back — " he began. 

"You won my heart and yet betrayed me! You stole my most precious treasure and 
fled like a thief. You and your big quarterstaff!" 

The king's eldest daughter was looking back and forth between them like a 
spectator at a shuttlecock game. "You showed her your big quarterstaff?" she 

"Knew that thing'd get you in trouble," muttered Lump. 

"I'll give you anything!" said Perilan. "You can have the ring back. Forgive me, 
dearest Witchmaiden!" 

"Dearest Witchmaiden?" said the king's eldest daughter. 

"I should turn you into a rabbit!" bellowed the Witchmaiden. Her ebon robes flew 
on the wind as she raised both slender arms to cast her spell. Tablecloths whirled in 
the tempest. 

Perilan fell to his knees before her, saw the bronze toe caps, and curled up with 
his hands over his head. "Forgive me, tickletoes!" he sobbed. 
"Tickletoes?" said Lump. 

But the endearment struck deep into the Witchmaiden's jealous but still loving 
heart, and she lowered her arms. "Oh very well. You can have your gold, and your 
princess," she said, with a hard look at the king's eldest daughter, who matched 
it, "and your kingdom. You can even keep the wretched ring. But I will have my 
vengeance. Lo!" she cried, "three things will befall you, craven cad. First, you shall 


Ellie Tupper 

fall under a spell that no creature can break: if ever you leave the borders of this 
kingdom, you will instantly turn into a rabbit!" 
The king looked thoughtful. 

"Your dead dragon will putrefy, and its evil humors will poison the land, the air, 
and the people forever!" 

The king's eldest daughter, who liked perfume, looked thoughtful. 

"And your big quarterstaff will now belong to your brother Lump!" 

The king's youngest daughter, who hasn't been in the story yet but was there all 
along, looked thoughtful. So did Lump. 

"No!" wept Perilan. But then, because he was clever as well as handsome, he 
pulled himself together and got up. One must always be courteous to old crones in 
stories, but even more must one be courteous to furious Witchmaidens. Besides, he 
was going to be king one day and it was better to have a sorceress on his side than 
not, especially since it appeared he wouldn't be able to go off to war at all effectively. 
"I regret my perfidy with all my heart," he said. "I willingly accept my punishment, 
and I hope that you will be satisfied and that we may be friends. Would you like a 

"I'd love one, but I think I'll be losing my appetite soon," said the Witchmaiden. 
Indeed, as she spoke, the first whiff of the dead dragon began to drift over the palace 

Her spell was as effective as any woman scorned could wish. Within a day, the 
dragon ponged so badly people's eyes watered for miles around. The king sent out 
a proclamation, skipping the gold stage and going straight to offering his youngest 
daughter's hand and an earldom to anyone who could clean up the mess. Ambitious 
youths gathered to try their hand with bucket and butcher knife, hacksaw and haul. 
But the dragon's hide was as impervious as ever, it was too big to move, and the 
stench was enough to shrivel nose hairs at thirty paces. 

Then Lump went to the king and said, "Sire, I will clean it up, but I'll need the 
help of my brother Prince Perilan and his magic ring." And the king said, through the 
perfumed handkerchief over his nose, "By all beads." 

So Lump collected a cartload of coal and a cartload of oil and two shovels, and he 
and Prince Perilan pulled the carts out to the dragon's carcass. When they got within 
half a mile of the corpse, Perilan took out a bottle of rosewater to sniff, but Lump just 
breathed deeply and smiled. When they got within a quarter of a mile, Perilan went 
to his knees and was sick, but Lump's nose just twitched. And when they got to a few 
yards off, Perilan's front hair frizzled. But Lump only sneezed. 

"How can you face this dreadful smell, brother?" Perilan choked. 

"I take care of a pig and a goat," said Lump. "Not to mention the six chickens. And 
you never asked why our vegetables were so big. Help me with this coal now." 

Together they shoveled half of the coal into the dead dragon's gaping maw. Then 
Lump poured half of the oil over the coal and threw in a match. 

The fire burned for a day and a night and the smoke could be seen from five 
leagues away. When it had burned itself out, people saw a marvelous thing. The skin 
and bones of the dragon still stood, but the putrid flesh had burned down to ash 
inside it. "Time for the ring," said Lump, and he gave a shovel to his brother. 

The Witch Maiden and The Dragon: A Riff 


"Why me?" demanded the new Prince. 
"You caught it," said Lump, "you clean it." 

So Prince Perilan put the magic ring on his forefinger and cleared out the ash, 
remarkably quickly. Then Lump stuffed the hollow with the rest of the coal and oil, 
down to the deepest end of the dragon's tail, and burned it, the smoke visible for ten 
leagues. In the end the dragon's entire hide was empty, supported only by its bones 
and some clever framework Lump designed. It stayed in that field for many years, 
and people would pay to go inside and look around. Lump gave the money to a fund 
for distressed janitors. 

The king's eldest daughter forgave Perilan his fling with the Witchmaiden since 
he'd been so helpful getting rid of the dragon's carcass, though she made him take 
perfumed baths twice a day for six months. The Witchmaiden herself, once she 
managed to stop laughing, became a good ally for the kingdom. Perilan's and Lump's 
mother gave away her gold shawl with the diamond fringe because it itched and 
chose one in nice blue wool. And Lump married the king's youngest daughter, who 
admired his new big quarterstaff very much, and lived happily ever after. 

Ride Away 

.Elizabeth Barrette 

That's what the old wizard told them: 
Ride away, and don't look back. 

He set them down on the green grass 

Between the two gray stone gates, 

She on her white mare, 

He on his bay gelding, 

And admonished them not to be afraid. 

The high mountain wind whipped at her hair 
And snapped her blue dress against her legs, 
But the hera only laughed and looked over the edge, 
Saying that in her world she used to go hang-gliding 
And her father was a fighter pilot who flew jets. 

The hero smirked and chucked a stone 
Down the sheer side of the ridge, 
Saying that in his world he used to go EVA 
And repair star-boats in the black night sky, 
So he didn't consider any place to be high up 
If he could see ground underneath him. 

The wizard grumbled and pushed them apart, 
Chivvied each towards a different gate, 
And called the crackling magic before them. 
World saved! Mission accomplished! 
Go HOME, already! 

But of course they looked back, 

And the wizard swore as the spell went awry, 

And they found themselves on an alien plain 

(still in their borrowed clothes, on borrowed horses) 
With a hundred tentacled horrors converging on them. 

Well, they said to each other, 
This ought to be interesting. 

Murphy's Law 

...Shana Lear 

Once, just once, I wished that everything would go like it was supposed to go. I 
wished the captain would check what he had agreed to ship before he signed the 
shipping order. I wished the first mate would accurately time our departure so that 
the replacement engine parts would arrive before she applied to station control for 
a priority departure slot. And I sure as hell wish our cook didn't consider cabbage 
to be the most important of the food groups. 

But considering we were currently staggering through hyperspace powered by 
only three fully-functioning engines, with a hold full of Alkan Slime-Beasts, and I 
had it on good authority that Mato was serving his famous Cabbage Slaw Casserole 
in the galley tonight, it seemed obvious that wishing was futile. Instead, I gave 
the number four engine another good whack with my wrench, jarring something 
back into place so the lights on the control board switched from red to green. Well, 
mostly green. I can't fix everything by hitting it. 

The Assistant Engineer, Ru, gave me a thumbs-up from the control room. I 
smiled at her as I opened the heavy door from the engine compartment to the 
control room. 

"Fantastic technique," Ru remarked dryly, "very direct." 

"I can't find what's loose in that machine; the diagnostic unit tells me that the 
engine is perfectly fine even as the controls show red across the board. My wrench 
finds and fixes the problem. And," I added thoughtfully "It makes me feel better to 
beat on that hunk of junk sometimes too." 

Ru carefully did not grin. The inhabitants of the planet Rozen have three 
sets of razor-sharp teeth that make any Terran think uncomfortably of a shark 
whenever they open their mouths too far. Rozen tradition says that the first Terran 
exploratory team to run across a Rozen colony fled in terror when the inhabitants 
tried to mimic the newcomer's friendly smiles. I believe it. 

Satisfied that the engine would hold for a while I turned to the next item on my 
mental list. I was only halfway through my inventory of capacitor parts when the 
next crisis hit. If there is some sort of god or cosmic spirit out there, it no doubt 
finds my life absolutely hilarious. 

"Tayce!" a panicked voice suddenly yelled my name through the com panel 
before continuing, "Oh lords and spirits, what are they doing now?" 


Shana Lear 

There were only twenty-five crew members on the Miranda and Kai and I had 
served together for over four years now, certainly long enough for me to recognize his 
voice. Our chief cargo handler was an easygoing Rozen male and certainly not prone 
to panic, so his frantic tone could only mean one thing. 

"Kai," I hit the reply toggle a little harder than necessary and the panel creaked in 
protest. I ignored it. "Did the slugs get out again?" 

Alkan Slime-Beasts are one of the most prized culinary delicacies in the Empire. 
They, through some thoroughly unlikely internal process, create and secrete Acetic 
Acid. This means that they essentially marinate themselves for their entire lifespan; 
the resulting meat is the tenderest in the known galaxy. It also means that any ship 
carrying them needs extensive retrofitting at the end of the run. We found Slime- 
Beasts roaming the halls only two weeks after we loaded them at Levenworth Station; 
they had rusted a hole right through the cargo hold wall. 

"No, worse!" I personally couldn't imagine what could be worse than slipping 
around trying to clean up corrosive acid glop, and winced at the memory. "Tayce," Kai 
continued, oblivious to my mental wanderings, "there's too many of them!" 

Arriving in Cargo Hold Six I found Kai up on the catwalk that hung suspended 
over the makeshift plastic pen we had constructed after the first jailbreak. Four of his 
six limbs clung to the metal, a fifth clutched a cargo manifest while the last waved 
about in the air as he tried to count the brown-grey slugs below him. I paused a 
moment more to admire his acrobatics as he swung about, before banging on the 
hatch to get his attention. 

"Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen... no, eighteen," his count turned into a snarl of 
Rozen profanity that I was glad I couldn't understand. Still muttering he twisted to 
look at me, waving the manifest wildly. "We loaded twelve adult Alkan Slime-Beasts 
on Capra, fourteen-year-old prime stock, not a one less than thirty kilos — now 

From my vantage point near the hatch I could see at least fifteen slugs of various 
weights, and Kai could obviously see more from his elevated position. 

"The shipping instructions have all sorts of advice on how to avoid losing one 
in transit, nothing about preventing yourself from gaining another half-dozen!" Kai 
glared down at the slugs. They seemed completely indifferent to his quandary. 

I looked at him, and then at the slugs, then back as I tried to think of something 
comforting to say. Fortunately I was saved from having to display my absolute 
dearth of knowledge of Slime-Beast related platitudes by the arrival of Kai's cargo 

"I think they reproduced, sir," he said from the hatchway behind me. A blanket 
of shocked silence descended on the hold, broken only by the young apprentice as 
he continued, "they reproduce asexually one of them can literally split into two, or 
even three genetic clones if the conditions are right." He hugged the data board, from 
which he had obviously gained this information, to his skinny chest. "We must have 
somehow stimulated them to multiply." 

Murphy's Law 


"How?" I demanded. 

"Temperature maybe," Kai mused, "or even all the plastic sheeting." 
I was having a conversation about slug sex; the world was officially going to 

Then the deck under me shivered and the engine whine, usually barely audible 
through all the hull plating, squealed into the supersonic. The whole ship bucked 
wildly, shifting and shaking uncontrollably. My last thought before my head collided 
with the bulkhead was of how ironic it was that the world really was ending. 

My first thought on waking was similarly inane. "Those slugs better not have 
gotten out again!" I declared. 

"I believe Mr. Kai is taking care of that right now," came an amused voice from 
my left. I tried to turn my head to reply, but stopped when irritated nerves shrieked 
in protest. Okay, I can just lay still for a little longer, I thought. Then there was a hiss 
and I relaxed and sighed as the painkiller did its work. 

"Will you marry me?" I asked the Kriss at my bedside. 

Doctor Hedy Mansi grinned at me, Kriss not having such intimidating dental 
equipment as Rozen, and replied. "My mate has never seemed open to the idea of 
sharing, but you may ask her if you wish." Doctor Mansi and his mate, Doctor Kala 
were part of the numerous Hedy clan on board, and their pair-bond was the reason 
we got not one but two highly qualified doctors for the Miranda. 

"Enough chatter," came the voice of said mate, who fixed a gimlet eye on me as 
she approached, "we have others who need beds, and the Captain wants you back in 

I saluted cheekily and swung myself off the small berth. As I made my way out 
of the medical bay I saw that most of the crew were there as well. The lone medical 
apprentice was applying bandages and salves, but the worst injuries seemed to be a 
couple of broken limbs. I hoped the damage to Engineering was as light. 

Naturally, however, the engine bay was a wreck. Some sort of explosion had 
breached the hull, leaving the bay open to the void, lit only by the occasional 
emergency light. There was no debris; the vacuum of space had claimed anything 
not bolted down, so it was easy to figure out what had happened. The #4 engine I 
had been whacking earlier had held, but there was nothing left of the #2 engine but 
blackened deck plating and a couple of twisted metal scraps still bolted to it. 

The loss of one engine wasn't truly crippling, we had been lumbering along 
without #4 before I had beaten it into submission. The gaping wound in the hull 
was jagged, but could be patched. The problem was that the #1 and #2 engines had 
shared an alcove, so when #2 blew the resulting explosion had fused #1 into what 
looked like a statue of a Kandarian dancing girl — with twenty-seven legs. Art aside, 
there was no way we would be able to power a transition into hyperspace with only 
two functioning engines, if we had even that. We were stuck here, wherever here 


Shana Lear 

"Get the repair-bots moving, we have to patch that hole and re-air the bay before 
the cold does any more damage," I said, finally, knowing Ru was standing behind 
me. She nodded and headed off as I surveyed my remaining crew. One of the two 
engineering apprentices was missing, but I had seen him as I left the medical bay so 
I knew he was all right. The other apprentice had reported in, and I sent her off to 
check on the breakers, which must have flipped when the engine exploded and were 
hopefully the only reason that #3 and #4 had shut down. With my track record for 
hopes and wishes, I wasn't holding my breath. 

I was missing my mechanic though. I went to find Ru, who was thankfully already 
in the control room directing the repair-bots toward the hull breach. 

"Ru, can you get Jiro and go check on the capacitor banks? I'll take over here." 

She looked relieved to give up the difficult job of running the remote repair- 
robots and moved towards the door. "The mechanic?" she asked, hesitating at the 

"Yeah," I said absently, already involved with the repair-bots, "the one with black 

She nodded and left. She and Jiro would check on the two capacitor banks that 
were the only energy source on the ship until I got the engines running again. I 
wanted to know how much time I had. 

"Sir, the #1 and #2 engines are completely scrapped, and their capacitor bank 
shows only twenty percent charged." I stared right into Captain Delaney's eyes as I 
made my report. He blinked, looking confused by the situation. Of course, that was 
how he normally looked so it was hard to tell. I appreciated his calm demeanor, 
whatever the reason, especially since his daughter was the next to react. 

"So what are we going to do?" First Mate Delaney's voice was shrill, panic barely 
hidden in her tone, "just sit here until we run out of air and die?" 

I repressed the urge to sigh. There really wasn't any good way to give this news 
and the First Mate was not helping matters. Not that she ever did. 

"The #3 engine is working fine — we've patched the breach and re-aired the bay 
— and the capacitors for #3 and #4 are one hundred percent charged. Engine #4 is 
offline, but it may be something we can fix here," I looked at the Captain, "I wouldn't 
count on it though." 

"What can we do then?" a communications tech asked. 

"One engine will get us moving in normal space, and the maneuvering thrusters 
are still working perfectly, so we can navigate. At this time we need to find a station 
and put in for repairs." 

Everyone at the table turned to look at Hedy Kehinde, the Scans Technician. The 
normal healthy lavender shade of its skin went pale. Like most Kriss neuters it was 
highly intelligent and competent, but also terminally shy. 

"Em." Kehinde's triple-jointed fingers drummed a nervous staccato on the table. 
"I've done sensor sweeps of the area and we are in a star system — but not one that 
matches anything in the database." 

Murphy's Law 


So there was good news and bad. At least we were in a star system, which carried 
the possibility of civilization and resources, as opposed to one of the great empty 
spaces between stars. However, if the star system in which we had arrived wasn't 
online in the database it was entirely possible we were the first people to ever come 

"The scans also show no signs of settlement on any of the three solid planets; no 
space stations either," Kehinde continued quietly. 

Chaos erupted in the conference room. Several people jumped to their feet, yelling 
at Captain Delaney, at Kehinde, at me, demanding that we do something. At least I 
think that's what they were saying, it was hard to tell over the general din. A couple 
of them were even shouting at the slugs oozing around under the table. The slugs, 
wisely, ignored them. The Captain was attempting to calm the furor, saying that we 
had power and plenty of supplies. Mato was declaring that he could feed all of us for 
a year with the stores of cabbage he had procured at Levenworth Station. 

That last statement snapped me out of my daze; he had time to obtain cabbage 
and I couldn't get engine parts? 

"Kehinde, reconfigure your scans to look for metal deposits," I barked, quieting 
the room immediately. "We may be the first people in this system, or we may not. You 
didn't find any stations or towns, but there might be a derelict ship, satellite, or even 
an asteroid miner out there that we can strip for parts." I turned to the Captain. "It's 
our best chance." 

He looked confused, blinked a couple of times, and then nodded. Kehinde scurried 
out of the room. 

"And I will see about getting that #4 engine up and running," I promised, with a 
steely look in my eyes that boded ill for any machine stupid enough to annoy me. 

Six hours later I was back in the same conference room, but this time I was 
covered in engine grease and soot. The smell of burnt hair filled the room, courtesy 
of a shower of sparks from my welding torch; Ru assured me that the Rozen actually 
found the odor quite pleasant. First Mate Mayla Delaney, however, was looking a little 
green. I found that funny, since she was the one who had demanded my presence 
without giving me time to clean up. 

I was seriously considering the possibility of showing up to every one of her 
'urgent' meetings covered in some hideously aromatic sludge when she spoke. 

"Chief Kimball," she began, "what is the current status in Engineering?" 

A whole lot further if you wouldn't keep dragging me up here, ferret-face, almost 
slipped out, but I managed a more neutral, "we're going as fast as we can under the 
circumstances." After all, it wasn't her fault that her genes had gifted her with a face 
only a rodent could love. 

"Have you gotten engine #4 up yet?" she pressed. 

"Yes, but with the jury-rig job we had to do on it, I think it dangerous to run at 
more than fifty percent output for long periods of time," I said. 


Shana Lear 

The First Mate looked like she was about to object when her father broke in, "at 
this point I think safety is more important than speed," he paused, "an extra fifty 
percent out of a single engine won't do much good anyway." 

Captain Delaney was usually content to sit back and let his daughter run the ship, 
but despite his baby-faced features and perpetual aura of confusion, Leland Delaney 
was no fool. Usually. Except when agreeing to haul Alkan Slime-Beasts, but that was 
a different story. The tension in the room ratcheted down several notches as he calmly 
took control of the meeting, deftly moving past the rest of the standard reports to 
address the reason for the meeting in the first place. 

"Kehinde, tell us about the metal deposits you found," he prompted. 

Kehinde shuffled the data boards in front of it briefly. "The first two are located 
in the asteroid belt between the sixth and seventh planets," it began quietly, plugging 
in one of the data boards to show a map of the system on the main screen — single 
sun, eleven planets. "These read as natural metal deposits, probably unworked ore. 
Since we don't have the tools to fabricate engine parts on board," it shot me a quick 
look and I nodded, "I have concentrated my attention on the second planet. The two 
innermost planets are not terraformed, but scans indicate that they are habitable, if 
perhaps unpleasant. There is a large metal signature here," Kehinde had switched 
data boards and now indicated an area on the larger image of the second planet, "and 
a smaller one here." The first site was on a large forested continent, the second on a 
smaller continent to the west of the first and seemed to alternate between forest and 
grasslands. The scale was far too large to tell anything else. 

"Thank you Kehinde," the Captain said, "I think we should start with the bigger 
metallic object on the planet." He waited for nods all around before continuing. "We'll 
lay in a course and — " 

There was a sudden racket in the hallway outside, complete with muffled yells 
and several of the nastier Rozen expletives. Deprived of her chance to wallow in 
bureaucratic minutiae, Mayla stormed over to the hatch, clearly bent on releasing 
some of her ire on the unfortunates outside. 

The door slid open before she could get there, however, revealing Kai standing in 
the corridor with an Alkan Slime-Beast under each of his four arms. 

"Sorry sirs!" He aborted an attempt to salute, trying to keep the slugs securely in 
his grasp, "just retrieving the cargo." 

Mayla stood there gaping at him and the Captain seemed to have turned to stone 
in shock. Figuring the meeting was over anyway I stood and crossed the room to the 

"Kai, you go ahead and stow these in the hold, I'll call someone to clean up the 
decks," I said, and he grinned, obviously forgetting how intimating his smile was, and 
trotted off. I turned back to the officers. "Careful where you step!" 

It took us another twenty-six hours to reach the planet, during which time I 
was able to get a shower, a meal and a solid ten hours of sleep. It took another five 
hours to establish an orbit, but that was fine as well. I got the last repairs in place in 

Murphy's Law 


Engineering, a nice nap and some lunch. Thus, it was that I was sitting in the galley 
munching unenthusiastically on a cabbage roll when Mayla's voice came over the 
intercom, calling for the landing party to gather their equipment and assemble at the 
#2 shuttle. 

I would really have preferred to land the entire ship, both for safety, and, hopefully, 
to ease the transfer of engines from a derelict to the Miranda, but atmospheric 
braking with one and a half engines was tricky at best and suicide at worst. My next 
proposal was to take a shuttle down to the surface to retrieve any engines or parts I 
could find. That idea had been rejected by our courageous First Mate who refused to 
'risk' her Chief Engineer. 

So the shuttle would go down to the planet carrying a crew of mostly Rozen, 
which made sense. The tiny, chitinous scales that made up their skin were impervious 
to most anything, the intensive filtration system in their lungs rendered them virtually 
immune to airborne pathogens and, of course, there is the fact that no one wants to 
mess with anything with as many teeth as a Rozen. When exploring an unknown and 
probably hostile environment they were our best bet. 

The problem with this idea was that we only had one Rozen engineer. Ru was very 
competent, but her Rozen companions were our ship guards, who spent most of the 
time ensuring the security of our cargo. They were nice boys, but they couldn't tell a 
hammer from a screwdriver. So Mayla had relented enough to allow Ru to take our 
mechanic, Jiro, along to assist with any engine retrieval necessary. 

Another announcement came over the intercom, paging all senior officers. 
Thankful for the excuse, I pushed away the remainder of my Spinach-Cabbage 
Casserole and headed for the bridge. 

Normally I avoided the bridge as much as possible; Mayla's officious manner could 
make my hair stand on end. But the shuttle would send its information feed right to 
the large screen at the communications station, so if I wanted visual I had to brave 
the first officer. I hoped it would be worth it. 

Almost all of the senior officers were gathered around the screen when I arrived; it 
looked like the visual had just begun. Since I could see all three Rozen I assumed Jiro 
was holding the recorder. From the looks of it, the shuttle had created its own landing 
space; the vegetation on every side was singed from engine exhaust. 

"Are you sure this is the place?" A voice sounded from a nearby speaker; since I 
didn't recognize it I assumed it was Jiro speaking. 

"Scans indicate a metallic mass thirty-six yards from your position at two o'clock 
from your present orientation," Kehinde answered immediately. Its long fingers flew 
over the panel before continuing, "perhaps you could move the Remote Sensing Unit 
in that direction?" 

The RSU was a bundle of incredibly powerful sensors and receptors roughly the 
size of my hand. I could see that someone down there was already using it, since one 
of the screens was scrolling information at a prodigious rate. I tried to pick out some 
of the details — oxygen levels optimal, carbon dioxide levels tolerable, temperature 
21°C — but had to stop when my head began to spin. Meanwhile I had missed some 
communication, because the screen now showed a much closer view of the two Rozen 
guards as they tried to clear a path with the Rozen analog to a machete. 


Shana Lear 

The visual followed them as they created a tunnel through the vegetation, 
swiveling every once in a while to show Ru with the RSU. There was a spate of 
conversation about the utter tenacity and incredible abundance of plant life on the 
planet. There wasn't much to see though, so several members of the bridge crew 
drifted back to their own stations. A great clang, loud even over the com link, brought 
everyone back. 

"Captain, I think this is it," Ru said, as she stepped forward into view, "it matches 
the data from Kehinde's scans." She nodded at the two younger Rozen, who promptly 
began whacking away at the seeming wall of flora with enthusiasm. 

We all watched, nervous, but trying not to show it. If we were lucky that 'metallic 
mass' would be a derelict spaceship, equipped with fully functioning engines I could 
simply drop into my bay and use to hyper back to civilization. However, since I had 
shared the showers with a herd of slugs this morning, my confidence in this fortunate 
chain of events occurring was understandably low. All I really wanted at this point 
were some parts to work with. If I could get just one more engine working we would 
probably be able to make the transition to hyperspace. 

"It is a ship," Ru's voice sounded tinny through the speakers, but everyone on the 
bridge let out the breath they had been holding and smiled, "the RSU matches the hull 
alloy to a Genesis-class colony transport ship — I'll try to find the identity code." 

I knew immediately that this ship was far too old to be useful. Galactic law 
required every ship to carry a unique ident code, but manufacturers had only been 
microprinting the bar code into every square centimeter of the hull during fabrication 
for the last one hundred and fifty years. The landing party had already scraped 
enough hull plating clean that she should have been able to find the code. 

"Genesis-class ships were used for colonization right at the advent of the 
hyperdrive," I said, reading a section of text from one of the screens, "the manufacturer 
stopped making them five hundred years ago." 

There was a moment of despairing silence on the bridge. That was when Jiro 
began to scream. 

I didn't find out what happened until it was over. Apparently their thick skin 
had protected the Rozen from the virulent poison exuded by the vine they had 
been clearing. They had been taking samples of various plants as they went along, 
including the vine. Dr. Mansi estimated that the poison entered the bloodstream 
almost immediately, causing wild muscle contractions and convulsions within 
seconds. We couldn't ask Jiro. Dr. Mansi and his staff hadn't been able to stabilize 
him and had put the human into coldsleep, suspended animation, until he could find 
a cure or a treatment. 

The atmosphere on board was subdued; everyone spoke quietly, walked softly and 
ate their cabbage without the usual jokes and banter. Not only was one of our own 
injured — dying — but Ru had found the ident code mere seconds before Jiro cried 
out. The Freedom was five hundred and seventy one years old. Even if her engines 

Murphy's Law 


hadn't become rusted hulks from hundreds of years of exposure, their design was 
simply too old to integrate into our ship. 

So now we were moving the Miranda to allow the shuttle to get to the second 
metal reading Kehinde had found, and I was sitting in the medical bay holding Jiro's 
cold hand. 

Jiro Tan had come on board at Mars Station only five months ago, when we began 
this ill-fated trip. It grieved me to say that he was a mechanic in my crew, in my 
department, and all I knew about him was that he had a wide, attractive smile, and 
a seemingly unending supply of very bad jokes. Hell, I'd promised his mother to take 
care of him, and here I was five months later referring to him as 'the one with black 
hair' for want of a better understanding of his character. I buried my head in my hands 
and tried very hard not to cry. 

There was a noise from the door, a metallic sound halfway between a rattle and 
a slither. I looked up and gaped a moment before gesturing Ru into the room. The 
Rozen were a sleek and deadly-looking species, very similar to the mythical Terran 
dragons in form, unless they were upset. Ru had puffed herself up and every scale 
stood on end, making her look like an enormous pincushion. 

"I forget sometimes," her voice broke the crystalline silence, "that humans are so 

"We can be," I answered. 

She shook herself violently, causing her scales to rattle again, before sinking to the 
floor by my chair. She took a moment to arrange herself, tucking legs and mid-limbs 
under her body. 

"The scans did not indicate any threats as we landed; I could not sense any once 
we were there..." she trailed off. "I did not think to test the plants for toxins." 

Ru had never landed on an unexplored planet before — none of us had. Survival 
training was not a skill this job required. The scans had told her that the planet was 
safe. Her own instincts had told her that the air was breathable and no large predators 
were waiting. It was safe. 

And it should have been. Virulently poisonous plants, hull breaches, malfunctioning 
engines... This was a cargo transport, not some sort of space scout out for adventure! 
I could feel the grief in me turn to anger. 

"Life isn't fair Ru, and it will keep kicking your legs out from under you when you 
least expect it." 

Ru stared at me, alarmed I think, by the viciousness of my tone. I grinned at her. 
"So we just have to keep on getting back up\" 

I took my wrench from the tool belt at my waist and hefted it thoughtfully, still 
grinning at Ru. "Time to get moving." 

Kai had finally given up on keeping the Slime-Beasts corralled — I could see 
at least three of them in the shuttle from where I sat. They couldn't eat their way 
through the ceramic alloy of the hull, but the cargo bay walls were beginning to 


Shana Lear 

resemble Swiss Cheese. I could care less. Right now I was burning through the 
planet's upper atmosphere on my way to what I had to believe was a more recent 
wreck than the last. Kehinde had warned me, as I stood in the middle of the bridge 
with my wrench in my hand, demanding to be in the next shuttle down, that the 
scans couldn't confirm it was a ship. I didn't care. Life had kicked me good and I was 
ready to kick back. 

"We're coming up on it now." Kai's voice was calm. "We'll be able to see it right 
about..." if he finished his sentence, no one could hear it as whoops of joy filled the 

It was definitely a ship. It had crashed nose first, plowing a furrow across the 
ground behind it. But, even better, it looked like the engines had still been running 
when it hit the ground; the area around it was blackened for kilometers. I muttered 
a brief prayer for the poor souls who had crewed the ship. If they had hit the ground 
while still under power there was no way anyone could have survived the impact. 

Kai circled the wreck several times before choosing a spot to land the shuttle, 
letting the sensors get a good look at the site. I heard Kehinde's voice through the com 
briefly, as it told Kai to go ahead and land. I wasn't paying much attention though; I 
was staring at the wreck greedily. It was too deformed by the crash to identify, but it 
certainly couldn't be as old as the previous ship. Although the plant life had begun to 
encroach on the edges of the burned area, the center was clear for several hundred 

"I'm going to set down to the east of the wreck," Kai said, interrupting my thoughts, 
"Kehinde says that it's getting some sporadic heat readings from those mounds to the 
west that might be animals." 

I nodded, and the three Rozen along this time tightened their grips on the 
high-powered rifles they carried. If the plants were this bad I was willing to bet the 
animals weren't cute, fuzzy, and harmless. I patted the Slime-Beast that had taken up 
residence under my chair absently, wincing as my fingers began to burn. 

"I'll put the shuttle between us and the forest," Kai indicated a smallish stand 
of trees near the edge of the burn. "Doctor Mansi, please stay in the shuttle unless 
you are needed, I will have the guards stay with you." If the younger Rozen were 
disappointed with simply guarding the shuttle they wisely held their tongues. 

Mansi nodded. He had come along as a medic, and would stay put unless there 
was an emergency. His wife was watching over Jiro in the medical bay. 

Kai gave the engines one last burn to char any nearby vegetation before landing 

I was chortling slightly as a squeezed myself through the buckled hatches and 
twisted corridors. The RSU I carried had immediately found the ident code on this 
ship. She was a Runabout-class cruiser, the Murphy's Law, registered one hundred and 
fifty six years ago out of Aredah Station. She had been reported missing less than a 
hundred years ago. 

Murphy's Law 


That meant that if there was anything left of the engines, I could use it. I grinned 
and chortled again, ignoring Kai's strange looks. Not only would the engines be fairly 
compatible, but, if we were really lucky, Murphy's Law might have been retrofitted as 
a pirate, and the engines would be even newer and more powerful. It was a distinct 
possibility after all. The Runabout class had been designed as a light cargo hauler, 
built for speed to carry small but valuable loads. It was ridiculously easy to convert 
into a pirate vessel. 

I was humming by the time we made it to the engine bay. There were two intact 
engines and three more that could be used for parts. I was happily unbolting the first 
one from the deck when Kai's communicator sparked to life. 

"Kai, those heat sources that Kehinde thought might be animals — they're getting 
closer." Mansi's voice held no trace of panic but we could tell he was tense. 

"How much closer? And how many?" Kai asked. I got back to the bolts. We might 
have to leave in a hurry. 

"Hundreds of them, closing in on the derelict from the west, they aren't too far 
away but..." 

We never got to hear what he said next because of the sudden roar from outside. 
It sounded like nothing I had ever heard before — but whatever was making it was 
clearly angry. Kai reached down and grabbed me, hauling me bodily away from the 
engine I was determined to bring with me. 

"Later," he hissed, propelling me back through the shattered corridors. Even I 
knew better to argue with that tone. 

Once outside he grabbed me again, this time throwing me across his back and 
racing for the shuttle. Rozen usually walk quadrapedally using their legs and mid- 
limbs, which leaves their arms free. Kai was racing over the charred landscape on all 
six limbs, covering ground at a tremendous rate. I just hung on desperately. 

Once we were in the shuttle I fell from Kai's back, hugging the nice solid deck for a 
moment before standing. Rozen might be fast on six legs, but I don't think that riding 
what felt like a galloping caterpillar will ever catch on. 

Meanwhile the noise from outside was now loud enough — or close enough — for 
us to hear even through the shuttle's walls. Kai checked the hatch to make sure it was 
securely closed and locked. A moment later we all jumped when there was a great 
metal clang, followed by another, then a hundred. 

"They're throwing spears at the shuttle," Mansi's voice was filled with disbelief. 

"I thought they were animals?" Kai asked, stalking forward to peer at Mansi's 

"Oh no," Mansi replied, "not animals," transferring the image from the shuttle's 
exterior camera to the main screen. 

I stared at the screen in shock. One of my crew was up there, running out of time. 
Jiro could only stay sedated for a maximum of seventy two hours before we had to 
revive him. Time was running out and the engines I needed were right there, less than 


Shana Lear 

three hundred meters away — and between them and me stood hundreds of fur-clad 
barbarians yelling and throwing spearsl 

"I guess we aren't the first people here after all," Mansi said quietly. 

There were a couple more clangs as spears bounced off the shuttle's hull. My right 
hand twitched toward the wrench at my waist and I began to laugh. 

"Toxic plants, exploding engines, slugs in my shower and now enraged natives to 
top it off!" I sat down, laughing so hard I was crying, or perhaps crying so hard I was 

"Tayce?" Kai asked cautiously. 

I spun to face him, all laughter gone. My eyes were cold and Kai actually stepped 
back a pace. Everyone has a breaking point, a place and time when they have had 
enough of whatever life was dealing out. I had just reached mine. 

"I am going to get those engines, slap them into the Miranda and get us the hell 
out of here — and if a hundred, or two hundred screaming savages think they can 
stop me they have another thing coming!" 

Taking advantage of their shock I toggled the hatch open and marched through. 
Kai lunged forward, but he was too late. I was outside, wrench in hand, before he 
could stop me. The herd of people outside turned to stare at me with murder in their 
eyes, and I didn't care. I had eaten casseroles more dangerous than them. 

"I am going to that ship," I said, clearly and slowly, pointing at the twisted metal 
carcass behind the menacing crowd. "I am going to unbuckle two engines from the 
decking and take them back to my ship." I fixed them with a deadly glare. "And you 
are all going to get out of my way!" 

A large man with a decorated staff pushed forward to stand in front of me. Since 
barbarians always seem to regard long sticks as conferring some sort of authority, I 
guessed he was their leader. 

"We will not allow infidels to profane the holy Murfle-Luu!" he screeched, waving 
his staff in my direction. "The unclean cannot be allowed into his presence!" 

I almost dropped my wrench, and the Rozen, who had moved to flank me when I 
had rushed from the shuttle, gaped in shock. This had the fortuitous effect of moving 
the threatening crowd back a ways, since it displayed all of their teeth quite nicely. 

"That spaceship is your god?" I asked incredulously. 

The dialect he was speaking was hard to understand. I watched the man, clearly 
a shaman or priest, draw himself up as the others around him nodded. 

"Many generations ago, when the all-mighty goddess Freet gave this land to the 
first of the People, it was rich and full of goodness!" His voice was shrill enough to 
give Mayla a good run for her money and I winced a little. The other barbarians, 
however, seemed enraptured, so maybe it was just me. 

"And Freet loved the People and gave them all good things," here his voice 
dropped slightly, for which I was grateful, "but the People sinned greatly, and none 
of the People's offerings pleased her. She cursed the People and their world turned 
against them!" There was a low wail from the audience. "Many died." 

He continued, but I was no longer listening. Gesturing to Kai, I edged toward the 
shuttle slightly. The Shaman was so busy describing the hardships and terrors that 
had assaulted the People after Freet's departure that none of them noticed. 

Murphy's Law 


"They're the colonists!" I hissed at my companions. "The ones from that first ship 
we found, the Freedom. They've turned history into mythology; the Freedom became 
the goddess Freet, and now..." 

"This ship then, the Murphy's Law has become Murfle-Luu, another god," Kai 
finished for me. 

The Shaman must have heard that, because he abruptly surged closer to us. "Do 
not blasphemy the god's name with your demon's tongues! Heretics!" He half-turned 
back to his followers. "For though Freet is in all ways our mother, who brought the 
People to this land, Murfle-Luu is our father, who saved us when we would have 

There was sudden picket of spears facing me. "For though Freet had turned her 
back on the People, the holy Murple-Luu had pity and descended unto us, burning 
away the poisonous forests with his sacred fire." The Shaman gathered himself up. 
"We will not betray his mercy by allowing demons to profane him!" 

The Colonial Service Agency offered rewards to any ship who reported finding 
a planet like this, where something had gone horribly wrong and the survivors 
reverted to barbacy to survive. As soon as we got back to civilization and sent in 
the coordinates a virtual swarm of personal would descend on the People: computer 
techs to analyze what was left of the Freedom's computers, anthropologists to study 
the culture, psychologists to study the people, and 'recovery personnel' to put them 
back on the road to civilization. 

None of that would happen, however, until I got those engines. What could 
and would happen, however, was that Jiro would die. He could die slowly, stuck in 
coldsleep for too long, the brain slowing down until it just stopped altogether. Or he 
could die quickly, if we woke him up without a cure, convulsing until his heart burst. 
And right now I was standing here, wasting the hours he had left. 

"I said, get out of my way!" I roared, and threw my wrench straight at the 
Shaman's head. 

There was a sharp crack and then silence; a horrible, deafening silence. The 
Shaman knelt slowly and picked up the pieces of his staff and cradled them to his 
chest. My guards raised their rifles and bared their teeth as the crowd took a step 
towards me, terrible growls filling the air. I almost laughed. It might have been better 
if my aim wasn't so lousy and I had hit the man instead of the stick. 

A shout of panic from the far side of the crowd probably saved my life. The whole 
group turned abruptly, staring at the trees behind our shuttle. There was something 
moving there, and the native's reactions confirmed my guess that the fauna of this 
planet was probably even worse than the flora. 

"The trees are moving!" Kai said. 

I craned my head trying to get a better view, strange thoughts of carnivorous trees 
flashing through my mind. And indeed, the trees were moving — in fact they were 
falling, and disappearing. I couldn't believe it! 


Shana Lear 

"It's the slugs!" I turned towards Kai. "They must have gotten bored of snacking on 
the shuttle and moved out here." Even as I said it I could see another one slithering 
down the boarding ramp to join the half dozen or so in the trees. Considering Kai's 
last count had indicated that we now had something like thirty of them on board, I 
wasn't surprised. 

Alkan Slime-Beasts did in fact have mouths; they just didn't have to use them 
very often, preferring to simply digest their surroundings externally before absorbing 
nutrients. Apparently the trees here were tasty enough to warrant a more direct mode 
of eating, and I could see that all of them seemed happily bent on deforestation. 

The natives were staring at the slugs in awe, some speaking to each other so 
quickly that I couldn't catch what they were saying, others falling to the ground. 

Inspiration struck. "Fools!" I cried out. "You see the powers of the divine beasts 
of the holy Murfle-Luu and you cry blasphemy?" The natives stared at me with 
rapt attention. My shipmates looked at me like I had lost my mind. "His holiness 
Murfle-Luu sent his cleaning fire that the People might live. But now the deadly trees 
encroach on the People again!" 

I swept my hand toward the trees, which were still rapidly disappearing. Our 
scans had indicated that the plants were so moisture-rich that any fire these people 
could set would probably go out before making much of a dent. The incredibly hot 
fire from the crash had given the People some reprieve, but that had been a hundred 
years ago. The men watching now had probably never seen the trees disappear so 
quickly and easily. 

"He has seen your suffering and sends his gifts." I looked at them disapprovingly. 
"Yet you greet them with spears!" 

There was a great clatter as every warrior threw down his spear and fell to his 
knees before me. I walked over to the Shaman and retrieved my wrench. 

"Shall he retract his favors?" I asked quietly, "or will you treat them with the 
reverence they deserve?" 

"Our error, our sin! May holy Murfle-Luu forgive us!" The Shaman wailed 

"His holiness is all forgiveness and mercies," I intoned, "treat his gifts with 

When I left two hours later, with my engines, the crowd of people gathered around 
the Slime-Beasts had grown to include women and children, all staring reverently at 
the slugs. They cheered briefly as the shuttle took off before turning back to their 
adoration of their newest gods. I am fairly sure the Slime-Beasts didn't care, but they 
did seem to be enjoying eating trees, so in the end it didn't matter. The People were 
happy, the slugs were happy, and if I couldn't get the ship into hyperspace in six hours 
I'd eat my wrench! 

It would probably taste better than cabbage anyway. 

I didn't have to eat my wrench, as the engine replacement went without a hitch. This 
was especially fortunate, since I was elected to help Kai herd all fifty-six Slime-Beasts 

Murphy's Law 


off the ship in Bluethorne City and my wrench made an excellent sort of slug-prodding 
device. The price that Captain Delaney got for such a windfall of slugs was enough to 
fix the ship, buy a host of nice spare parts for engineering, and pay for Jiro's medical 
bills at Bluethorne City's central hospital. Jiro was, thankfully, on a quick road to 
recovery once Dr. Mansi got him out of Miranda's tiny med-bay and into a real hospital. 
A ship with engines, without holes, and a whole and healthy crew. I looked down at 
my plate full of Mato's extra-special roast cabbage-slaw casserole and smiled. 

Bitter Elsie Mae 

...Tessa Kum 

Here I am, a poor seaman down on his luck, won't you spot me a bit of grub? What? 
Here now, you watch your words, laddie. There weren't no wine and women what 
took me money, oh no, it's a strange tale what brought me here. 

There's never been a ship's soul go so bad as with the Elsie Mae. It's no mercy 
that she spared me; she wants her story tol', and there be naught for me to do but 

I can only pray she went down with the Bitter. For if that didn't kill her, nothing 

That slut Margie down the ol' Happy Goat on Portsmouth done a 'Hi, Jack!' on 
me. Up goes her skirts and down comes the cosh. Daft floozy weren't even that 
much a looker. 

They didn't need to get the press-gang on me. I were looking for a ship that day. 
Could of just asked me. But I put me mark in the Bitter's book and as I had plenty 
of ships 'fore her, they gone made me carpenter's mate. 

I were walking to the doc's cabin 'cause that damn pig with the cosh weren't 
too careful of where he were hitting, and that were when it first happened. The 
whole place smelt like polish and there were new paint everywhere, but it all felt 
real familiar like. It's what them frogs call 'day-jar-voo.' 

They said, "What's wrong, Potsworth?" and I tol' them. Bitter were a new ship, 
as they say, stinks of gum and varnish still. Not seen her on the waters 'fore. They 
gone given me funny looks then, and one dirty bastard made off the evil eye, as 
like the whole bunch of them were scared. I tol' them to clear off 'fore I belt them 
one, and not a man among them had the balls to stay. 

I thought it were just the crack on me noggin making me see things. Weren't till 
I stood on deck as I knew the truth of it. 

New sails and ropes and paint and name and she were still the Elsie Mae. So's I 
thought. There's grooves on the fife rail where the ropes have worn in, even though 
they gone changed the turns taken, and these three knots in the deck planking 
right here what looks like a beetle, and here's the biggest give away of all, on the 
course faddock, right on the edge, the letters HSR That there's me. Henry Sounding 
Potsworth. Know her roll on the waves like me very own heartbeat. 


Tessa Kum 

But this didn't seem right, for the Elsie Mae were Captain Wartely's ship, and not 
just his ship if you get me. He named her after his first gal, and when she died the 
ship were the only thing kept him going. He loved that ship something fierce, and 
blow me if she didn't love him back. Some months back I seen him in Ireland, and he 
were fit and well, and his company sound, and all right with his world. I even heard 
his wife gone had another babe, a wee gal. 

Seems as something must have happened soon after for the Bitter to be so quick 
in serving as licensed privateer, and under a new captain too. Ain't no way Captain 
Wartely would of sold the Elsie Mae. A right shame, as he were a good man. This one 
here, Captain Farnelby he's a right toff. Big ol' chip on his shoulder about something 
and we won't be seeing him tying down in rough seas. Too genteel. 

I tried asking where the ship come from and naught know. Them's that does have 
mouths tighter than their arses. Never seen a prissier pack of officers in all me life. 

They beat a man for he weren't quick enough up the rigging. Keeping me eyes 
down for this lot. 

Mousey Brown were a bastard of a man, a pig dog and a pox-faced dullard. But 
he didn't deserve it. Whatever it were. 

He were sent up to the topgallant during the night to tie the gaskets and he never 
come down. Officer of the watch changed, and they must have forgot him, 'cause his 
missing weren't noticed till dawn. 

It weren't that he were gone that raised the cry, were that they saw the topgallant. 
Ghastly sight, sent chills in me fingers just looking at it. This great splash of blood 
across the sail, and I thought to meself there aren't that much blood in a man's body. 
Dark it were, awful dark. Naught of Mousey Brown to be seen, naught at all. 

Captain Farnelby were all for sending men straight up, but there weren't anyone 
wants to go. So's he ordered Philby and Hodgeson and O'Neily up or a flogging, and 
up they go. 

There were something god-awful about that stain. It were huge and black and 
looking at us all down on deck, I swear. The blood went and run in a ways such as 
almost makes a face. Didn't want that hanging above me all day. 

Them three were out on the yardarm where Mousey Brown were, or should have 
been, and they called down that there weren't nothing up there but blood soaked in 
the sail and the ropes and all over the yardarm, still damp, and it got all over their 

I turned and tol' 01' Rotten that weren't right, not only two days from port, and he 
just muttered at me. Said there were a demon on the ship, and he heard it knocking 
in the bilges. But 01' Rotten were a bit gone in the head, and I gone to tell him that 
when there's this yell and everyone were shoving around and I didn't know what 
were happening. 

Then there were a great crash, no, not crash, were more like a thud, but all meaty 
and wet. 

When I looked, the Captain were all white as a sheet, and Philby and Hodgeson 
and O'Neily were fallen on the deck right at his feet. O'Neily's skull were all smashed 
in like a egg, and Philby were all twisted wrong around the back and he weren't 

Bitter Elsie Mae 


breathing, but Hodgeson were bleeding from the nose and ears and crying like a 
frightened babe. His legs were broken, both of them, and there were nasty bones 
poked right through his skin. 

He said the footrope snapped but they held on the yardarm, but it didn't matter 
for the yardarm shook them off. 

Captain Farnelby weren't having none of that nonsense, thank you very much, and 
said that it were the wind or somesuch, but Hodgeson kept on crying. 

There were blood all over the deck when they took them away. 'Twere me had to 
scrub it all, but it wouldn't come out of the wood. 

Hodgeson died in the night after the doc cut his legs off. 

Bilges always stink on high, but the hold began to put up a right good stench after 
them three deaths, and it weren't for the bodies neither for we buried them right and 
quick. Queer, bilges smell all the same like, but this smell weren't that. It hung round 
the officers' cabins, and me and George sniffed all the corners like, but it weren't 
coming from anywhere. 

Weren't a good smell. I'm used to sweat and blood, but this were worse. Got up 
your nose and down the back of your throat so's you could taste it even when you're 
up in the rigging. Brought me guts right up, it did. Were all anger, which don't make 
any sense, but that's what it tasted like. 

Officers weren't happy, and you ain't never seen so many of them on deck, trying 
to get away from it. They were all strutting around with no idea what's they were 
doing and getting in everyone's way. 

But that weren't so bad as the knocking. 

I said it were strange, for the Elsie Mae were a quiet ship. She's too well made to 
be groaning in a brisk wind, and only talks in a wee whisper. And now there were 
this knock-knocking everywhere you go, like there's some poor bastard in the hull, 
banging away, and that bastard won't shut up neither. Knocking all hours of the day 
and night, none of us could sleep, and some of the men, they wouldn't even set foot 
below. Said it were cursed and we brought ghosts with us. Captain Farnelby had them 
flogged, said there weren't never any cause for ghosts on this ship. 

The knocking were so loud when he said that I near couldn't hear him. 

I asked 01' Rotten how things stood, for he'd sailed with Captain Farnelby for years 
gone by, but he didn't want to talk about the ship at all. He gots himself all worked 
up and started yelling and spitting at me about nothing what made any sense to me. 
How it weren't their fault and he ain't never done no harm to no little gal. 

They don't call him 01' Rotten for nothing. 

I were on the heads when I heard First Mate Casey screaming. Were this horrible 
shriek what no man should ever let out, and it went on and on and on like he were 
using more air than what he had in him 'cause he needed to or the scream would, I 
don't know, tear him apart from the insides. It were a good thing I were already on 
the heads, I tell you that. 


Tessa Kum 

By the time I had me trousers up there were men running around all over trying to 
find the First Mate. They were yelling and shouting and making such a hullahbaloo I 
don't reckon none of them heard all the crazy knocking that weren't their feet. 

I were going along midships when I tripped and went bang right over, and I sure 
found First Mate Casey. 

There were blood everywhere, just like with Mousey Brown, only this time it were 
I what were in it. Smelled horrid, like a man's insides, but look as I may, I couldn't 
find nothing of First Mate Casey, only his boots. 

Murphey picked one of the boots up and there weren't nothing in it but more 

The captain put me in irons. Said I must have done it. 

Damn powder monkey dropped me food, and the cell floors weren't none so clean. 
He just looked down in me bowl and come over all white all a sudden, and threw the 
bowl like it bit him. 

I asked him what he were doing throwing me tucker on the floor, and he just 
pointed at me food going, "There's the girl! There's the girl!" I had a look, and even 
being a mess I could kind of see a face. There were these two eyes and a mouth, and 
they weren't nice them eyes, but the longer I looked, the more there were to see, and 
'fore I knew it a whole gal were staring right back at me. Pretty little thing, even in a 
mess of stew. She looked a bit familiar, like maybe I seen her picture 'fore. 

The powder monkey gone run away, but I were chained with that damn knocking 
going on. I knocked back. Don't know why. 

Could hear all this yelling with everyone going on about this gal everywhere. I 
said to her, "Elsie Mae, where did you go bad?" and all the knocking stopped and the 
faces went away. 

Captain Farnelby didn't like it that I called her Elsie Mae. For all his saying what 
the Elsie Mae were gone, and the Bitter ain't got naught in common with her, there 
weren't no stopping what's there. He come over all still when I asked him about 
Captain Wartely and the ship went still too. He said he ain't never heard of no Captain 
Wartely which I knew were a plum lie. 

When I toP him that I hadn't seen First Mate Casey on the deck for I were on the 
heads, and it were just like Mousey Brown, he didn't believe me. Wanted himself a 
scapegoat to feed the others. 

And then the ship knocked, right by me ear, and the thought just popped into me 
head. I asked him if he knew Captain Wartely's daughter Elsie, what the ship were 
named after. Pretty little gal, she were. Figurehead carved in her likeness. They said 
she never actually died, she stayed with the ship. Loved her pop that much. 

Were talking out me arse, but the captain came over all quiet, and then tol' me I 
weren't to mention Captain Wartely again, and if I did it were mutiny. That were a 
bit stiff, but I weren't going to say nothing with the captain in that sort of mood. He 
gone left in a huff and said I weren't to have no food today. 

Bitter Elsie Mae 


Only all the food went bad. Every last bit of it, even those damn hardtacks, even 
the rum. They said if you looked at it right, that gal were there again. 

Nothing for it but to put into port and get some more, only we were a ways away 
from anything. None of us were happy, for rationing is bad enough without your food 
looking back at you. 

No one wanted to be alone on the Bitter. Being out of sight were like signing 
your own death warrant. Too much fear in the crew, and what with the knocking and 
starving and everyone having the night horrors weren't no one not looking for a fight. 
George, he come down to visit, he said we had more men down from brawls than 
from them 'accidents.' We were in bad shape when the Spanish privateer showed on 
the horizon. 

There weren't enough fit to man all the Bitter's guns, so's next thing I know they 
dragged me out and put me as a sixer on the port side. Hadn't ever even done a drill 
with this lot. 

Stood there, ready to haul the cannon into place. Horrible waiting with not being 
able to see nothing, and the galley were stinking on high with that horrible smell. 
Everything were sticky with sweat, and we were all fidgeting and I heard most doing 
a little prayer. 

01' Rotten weren't praying, nor were he looking through the portholes trying to 
see the privateer. I were watching him, and he were looking all over the walls and 
ceiling and floor and guns like he were expecting them to grow arms and get him. 

I said he should of made his confessions 'fore getting on this ship, and you ain't 
never seen a man fall to pieces so fast. He just started sobbing about how he was 
sorry about Wartely and it weren't his fault, but he didn't have no choice, captain's 

First I've heard anyone mention Captain Wartely, and I straight out asked him 
what they did to him. 

01' Rotten broke then. Started screaming about hows it were an accident, it were, 
and it were Farnelby's fault and Farnelby's orders, and he'd gone crossed his heart and 
said sorry a hundred times, but Farnelby ordered the Elsie Mae be requisitioned, and 
'fore Captain Wartely could say aye or nay there were blood all over the deck, and 
Captain Wartely breathed his last, and the ship, she screamed, and she knew whats 
they'd done, and she were going to see the same done to them all. 

Everyone gone leaped right out of their skins till a sailor knocked 01' Rotten 

That put the chills right in me, that did. No wonder she were so full of anger. 

They beat us back to our places and the deck tilted as the Bitter come about to 
give the privateer a full broadside. Watched the starboard gunners fire one by one and 
the cannons thundered back from the recoil and next I know there were shrapnel and 
wood gone everywhere, and a big chunk of the hull blasted clear away. The fourth 
gun went and blew itself up. Splinters got me hard in the leg and shoulder, but I were 
still standing. Privateer didn't even need to get a shot off at us. The fourth cannon and 
crew were gone, just gone, with the deck it were on and the deck above. Blood and 
bits of body about the galley, and I couldn't hear nothing but all this screaming. 


Tessa Kum 

I were going to fill a place on the left over starboard guns when the ship lets out 
this moan. It were a real horrible sound what started at the stern and creaked up to 
the prow. There were shudders all under foot what have nothing to do with enemy 
fire. Then another groan, almost like a word, and then the Bitter started to list. 

I grabbed a hold of the stairs. Through the gunports I could see the privateer 
coming about with her cannons out, not a trace of smoke around them, and all the 
dons standing on deck, jeering. The Bitter let out another horrible groan and shudder, 
and then the hole in her hull dipped under the water, and I knew it were more than 
bad luck. 

I got out on top right quick, 'fore the water caught me. Rope and mess everywhere 
below, and the deck weren't tidy neither, what with the listing. Didn't wait for the 
captain to give the order to abandon ship, for he couldn't see, no, he wouldn't see 
what were happening. She were shaking and shuddering like she were trying to tear 
herself apart. Groaning and creaking like she were trying to speak. 

"Elsie Mae!" I cried. "What're you doing?" 

There were a movement up by the bowsprit, but there were no one there. I clung 
on for dear life to the railing, and what I saw turned me hair white, I tell you. The 
figurehead, all a likeness of Wartley's first daughter, it turned and looked straight at 
me, God's truth. 

The whole ship, she juddered, and I knew then she were going to take everyone to 
the bottom. But for me, she pointed at one of the lifeboats, and as I watched it swung 
out over the water with naught anybody touching it. Don't need to tell me twice. 

I near fell in the boat with it wobbling about, and as I were cutting the ropes there 
were a snap and crack like a shout, and the ocean tore as the caulking peeled away 
and the planks sprang apart, and the water just rushed in. Her sounds were changing. 
She sounded more and more like she were trying to speak. 

I rowed for all I were worth. Making straight for the privateer, so's I were facing 
the Bitter, the Elsie Mae. They were trying to lower another boat, but it just falls apart 
like there were nothing but spit holding it together. She weren't going to let a single 
one of them go. Everyone were slipping and falling in all the blood what were welling 
out of the deck. She were going down fast, and there were a great roar as the water 
finally rushed in the last of her, and in that roar I just heard her cry. 

Oh, Elsie Mae. 

She plunged down, and the glimpse I got of the figurehead, just 'fore she 
disappeared for good, were strange and wrong. She weren't the good Elsie Mae no 
more, not Wartley's sweet gal. A vengeful ship, if ever there were such a thing. 

Suction pulled them all down, those that were on deck. I waited, but only 
wreckage come back up. She took everyone but me. 

The don's captain didn't want naught to do with me, so they gone dropped me off 
first port they passed, right here. Don't even got me any pay. I'm just a poor seaman, 
down on his luck. Now, I gone toP you a good tale, a fine tale. How's about that 

Fantasy: Imagined Worlds, or 
Current Social Commentary? 

. ..Tehani Wessely 

Tolkien insisted his hobbits were not allegorical. Feist and Eddings both nodded to 
the fact that their "invented worlds" bear some resemblance to the world we live in. 
From high fantasy to supernatural romance, societal references are embedded in 
speculative fiction stories of all forms, perpetuating or challenging cultural standards 
and stereotypes. So is fantasy merely a representation of reality? Do these worlds, 
conjured from an author's imagination, merely reflect the current social trends of the 
time they were written? 

The term "speculative fiction" has been coined in recent years to cover the science 
fiction (SF), fantasy (F) and horror (H) genres, and all the sub genres that they encompass, 
such as magic realism, supernatural romance, space opera and so on. 1 The phrase 
itself implies that this type of fiction is conjectural, theoretical or suppositional. 

In regards to SF, the speculative element comes from hypothesizing possible futures, 
or aspects of futures. When it comes to fantasy, however, it is the "what if" element 
that dominates; alternate histories, magic realism, "imaginary" worlds that bear strong 
societal or geographical resemblance to the "real" world we live in. Commentary 
on world politics, terrorism, war, cultural, racial and gender divides — the subtext is 
prominent in many fantasy texts. 

Fantasy works on a premise of conjecture in which alternative social norms are 
presented in an imaginary, or at least altered, reality. Whether that be a world where 
dragons are worshipped as gods, or hobbits quest for a ring, or vampires are accepted 
members of society, the author is presenting views on culture, society and sometimes 
geography that parallel, contradict with or conform to those we see as "normal". 

Of course, speculative fiction written by a person in England during World War II 
will almost certainly present a different view to that written by a person in Iraq in 2007. 
The descriptions of landscape, ethnicity, world figures and events, whilst "imaginary", 
are likely to be analogous with landscapes, ethnicities, world figures and events from 
that author's own world at the point in time and space that the author is writing. 
Sometimes this is deliberate, and the author is making a definitive statement of the 
state of the world using speculative fiction as a medium. At other times (and as Tolkien 
insisted), it is simply the subconscious influence on the life and times of the author that 
are evidenced in what and how he or she writes. 


Tehani Wessely 

Fiction is a medium for transmitting one person's outlook on life to a number of people 
who choose to read it. Realist fiction, which supposedly reflects the world at the time and 
place it was written, often draws dark conclusions about society and can result in tedium 
or outrage on the part of a reader who does not agree with the author's perspective. 
Speculative fiction, however, is loved for its sheer entertainment value — the popularity 
of this genre demonstrates the growing need readers feel for escapism, to flee from the 
chains of the "real world" that bind them. Interestingly though, the genre also has perhaps 
the strongest capacity to impart societal truths, but in a way so subtle at times that readers 
might not be aware of it. 

Since words were first used to tell stories, authors and storytellers have used their 
texts to capture or comment on the world as they see it. The Bible, although perceived 
as a non-fiction work, could be read as one of the greatest epic stories ever written. 
Many authors claim their stories are written purely for entertainment. Tolkien, one of the 
forefathers of modern speculative fiction, stated: 

The prime motive was the desire of a tale teller to try his hand at a really 
long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight 
them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them... As for any 
other inner meaning or 'message', it has in the intention of the author none. 
It is neither allegorical nor topical. 2 

While Tolkien himself most likely believed what he said, multitudes of commentators 
on Tolkien and other fantasists would beg to differ. It is almost impossible for a person to 
write and yet not record some comment about social reality, be it gender, culture, race, 
religion or any of a society's stereotypes and norms. It may be conscious or unconscious 
to include such references, but it does occur. Reality, or at least representations of reality 
as the author perceives it, will be recorded in the writer's work, whether presented 
intentionally or not. 

These representations vary in reader accessibility however, and often the frequent 
perpetuations of a stereotype will slip by. On the other hand, defiance of an accepted 
norm will generally not escape notice, and may impinge upon the reader's values, systems 
of belief, and sheer enjoyment of a story if the "message" against a stereotype is too 

To a person who picks up a novel or story as an escape from everyday existence, social 
commentary within the text may by bypassed or ignored. For example, the presentation 
of religion in a fantasy novel is often quite complex, and the reader seeking only their 
pleasure in the book would usually accept the gods, rituals and religious practices of 
the characters in the text simply as part of the story, which is of course generally just as 
the author wishes. However, a closer reading of some stories can produce some very 
surprising comments on different religions of the world, if the reader is conversant in 
such matters. Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel sequence and the Jewels novels by Anne Bishop 

Fantasy: Imagined Worlds or Current Social Commentary 


immediately spring to mind as examples of Christian religion being viewed in an alternate 
manner, while it is well known that novels such as the Narnia series (C.S. Lewis) and 
Pullman's Northern Lights and the other books in the His Doric Materials saga have strong 
Christian links. Fantasy analyst K. Filmer notes that: 

Fiction consists of lies, relying on the convention of a 'suspension of 
disbelief for its credibility, no matter how 'realistic' it purports to be. Life 
is not lived in neat, self encapsulated chapters... there is an argument for 
classifying all literature as fantasy in one sense or another... 3 

In the broadest sense, all fiction is fantasy in that it deals with alternate realities. Even 
the realist novel contains notions of what the author perceives as "real" or "true", but 
which may be inconceivable to readers in other cultures or in years to come. 

Fantasy, though, has the capacity to provide a vehicle by which the author can capture 
a stereotype and either perpetuate it, or dismiss it at will. The mighty (modern) fantasy 
tomes of Feist, Eddings, Jordan, Martin, and myriad others have the fullest capacity to 
achieve this, and close study of these novels demonstrates fascinating dioramas of the 
present, "real" world, encapsulated in "imaginary" settings. Sometimes these stereotypes 
are handled most subtly. Others are painted with a broad brush. 

Compare for example the handling of Feist's gender roles in his Midkemia sequence, 
as opposed to the way the Eddings writing team deals with women of power. While David 
and Leigh Eddings include powerful female characters as a matter of course in their work, 
often these women are overpowering — Polgara has enormous control over the males 
in the Belgariad/Mallorean sequences, and the goddess Aphrael in the Elenium/Jamuli 
trilogies can do pretty much anything. While the desire to present powerful women is 
obvious, it is so blatant that it can have the effect of being simply a tool. It can even have 
the reverse effect of d/sempowering women, by creating a composite of stereotypical 
female characteristics instead of writing characters indicative of real women, with real lives 
and true power, emotionally, mentally and physically. 

By contrast, while the women in Feist's novels are not necessarily central characters 
(with the obvious exception of Mara of the Acoma in the Empire trilogy, notably co-written 
by Janny Wurts), they do have a sustainable and measurable impact on the men in the 
Midkemia world. This is especially evident in the women in the supporting roles in the 
early novels, Magician and the first books following it. Feist presents ordinary women 
placed in extraordinary circumstances, and demonstrates in a very natural way how these 
women handle the situations they are thrust into, without being all powerful, all knowing, 
or somehow possessing of supernatural power — they are simply women, showing that 
women can be leaders, can grow and change, can become people of presence and 
power in a world that did not necessarily allow for it. Yes, Feist too has women with power, 
such as Miranda, and the Empress of Kesh, but these women too are allowed to simply 
be women, and are not just masculine characters made female for the sake of gender 


Tehani Wessely 


Gender is not the only stereotype effected or protested in fantasy; race, culture and age 
are frequent visible themes that authors consciously write into their works, alongside all the 
unconscious mirroring of the "real". Fantasy novels, renowned for length and weight, are 
an obvious vehicle for demonstrating the phenomenon of reality in an imaginative realm, 
due to the space allowed to expound upon societies and cultures in the stories. At the 
same time, the short form of this speculative genre also has the capacity to express such 
trends. One only has to read stories in any of the current crop of ASIM, AGOG, Aurealis, 
Orb or New Ceres to find threads of the "real" twined with those of the imagined. Perhaps 
these stories don't have the scope to express the depth that a novel does, but they are still 
a record of the time and space they were written. 

In his chapter of Twentieth Century Fantasists, J. Strugnell suggests that heroic fantasy 
reflects basic social aspirations and concerns: 

[Fantasy stories] reflect the need of the child to overcome the threat of 
the adult world, they reflect the need of disadvantaged social groups to 
overcome social barriers, and they reflect the need of suppressed ethnic and 
racial groups to achieve political independence. 4 

It could also be inferred that fantasy does not just reflect these needs; it is actually 
a window to the world that the needs come from. Fantasy is current social commentary, 
whether it intends to be or not; all writing reflects the world the writer inhabits and must 
by extension capture that world, despite the differences in time and place the writer is 
showcasing. All writing is representations of reality in some shape or form — fantasy 
simply has a more enjoyable, more subtle means to express it. 

(Endnotes) 1 The SF Site,, has an interesting column 
"Science Fiction & Fantasy: A Genre With Many Faces", by Amy Goldschlager which 
defines some of the subgenres of speculative fiction. It also has a logical quote from 
Isaac Asimov regarding what divides science fiction from fantasy. 

2 in LotR 1986 ed., p. 10/1 1 

3 Filmer, K., 1 992, Scepticism and Hope in Twentieth Century Fantasy , Bowling Green 
State University Popular Press, Ohio, p. 141 

4 Strugnell, J., 1992, 'Hammering the Demons', Twentieth Century Fantasists, K. Filmer 
(ed.), The Macmillan Press, London, p. 1 73 

Interview Jackie Kessler 

. ..Tehani Wessely 

ASM: I've read and fallen in love with Hell's Belles and The Road to Hell — the 
idea of a succubus turning human is so much fun. What was your inspiration? 

JACKIE: Embarrassing my mother, of course. (Actually, Mom is my biggest fan. 
Not only does she buy loads of copies of my books and give them to family 
and friends, she also was in the audience when was part of the erotic reading 
series In the Flesh. Hi, Mom!) 

Jezebel, the former succubus, sort of pulled an Athena and sprang fully 
formed out of my head. I knew I wanted to write about a demon who left Hell, 
and because it would be a female demon, that automatically meant (to me, 
anyway) that she would be a succubus. 

When it came to creating Hell for my series, I had a lot of influences, most 
notably Neil Gaiman. His story arc about Hell got me thinking about what 
would happen if Hell changed management... and that got me thinking about 
the purpose of Hell in the first place. And that led to the Announcement, which 
is the launching point for the action in Hell's Belles and completely changes 
Jezebel's worldview. 

ASIM: Jezebel is a funny and sassy heroine, full of delightful flaws, and she's 
clearly got some soft spots. Was it challenging to write a character like her? 

JACKIE: Actually, Jezebel speaks with a voice very similar to mine (except 
she's funnier). Maybe I'm tapping into my own inner demon, but when I write 
Jezebel, it just all flows. 

Harder for me was writing the third book, Hotter than Hell (August 2008 
— plug! plug! No, I have no shame), which is the incubus Daunuan's story. 
Writing in first-person male POX especially when the narrator is an evil, horny 
demon who needs to have reader sympathy, really forced me to write outside 
of my comfort zone. When I finally found Daun's voice, wow, it just soared. 
And then I had to switch gears and write in Jezebel's voice for a novella 
(*cough*, to appear in the Kensington anthology, Eternal Lover, April 2008, 
*cough*), and man, that was tough. The first month I tried to write that story, 
I kept doing it in Daun's voice. It took a while to finally step into Jezebel. 
Finding the right beginning to the novella helped immensely. Frankly, I think 
Daun and Jezzie are terribly bemused over the whole thing. 



ASIM: You mentioned a novella (sorry, are you a little ill today? Hope that gets 
better as the plugs become more shameless!) featuring Jezebel. What else do you 
have in the works? 

JACKIE: I'm working on a few more HELL things, including a book trailer for 
HOT. (Love making book trailers. There must be something very, very wrong with 
me.) I also have a couple of other projects in the works, all of which fall into the 
"nothing official" yet category. But fingers crossed, there will be a YA traditional 
fantasy published under the name of Jackie Morse in the near future. 

ASIM: Why a pen name? 

JACKIE: My HELL stuff is really not meant for kids. The YA I wrote is. I'd hate 
for a twelve year old to walk into a bookstore, looking for the YA book and 
accidentally picking up Helle's Belles. Me, I read Wifey when I was twelve, because 
I loved Judy Blume and didn't realize it was not, not, not a children's book. (The 
back cover copy, which discussed "chicken on Wednesdays and sex on Saturdays" 
probably should have tipped me off. I never said I was the brightest bulb out 

ASIM: When you're not writing, what do you like to do? 

JACKIE: Not writing? Um... sorry? What is this "not writing" of which you 

I love reading. (What a stretch!) And having my kids whoop me in a challenging 
game of CANDYLAND. And my Loving Husband and I enjoy watching THE DAILY 
SHOW and debating LOST plot points. I also have an unhealthy addiction to 
checking my email. 

ASIM: If Neil Gaiman is one of your influences, can you tell us some others, and the 
ways they influence you and your writing? 

JACKIE: Along with Neil, my influences include... 

Christopher Moore. The man is a genius. I love his humor, and how he's 
utterly unapologetic about discussing whatever he wants to discuss. LAMB is one 
of my favorite books. 

Toni Morrison. Ever since I read BELOVED — specifically, the chapter in which 
we get the main character's thoughts, including Beloved as a two-year-old girl 
— I've been amazed by how powerful writing can be. 

Alan Moore. Have you read THE WATCHMEN? If not, go get it. Right now. 
I'll wait. 

Matt Wagner. I (heart) Hunter Rose. 
ASIM: Thanks Jackie! 

JACKIE KESSLER is the author of Hell's Bells, The Road to Hell and Hotter than 
Hell (forthcoming, August 2008), and novella A Hell of a Time (April 2008 in 
Eternal Lover, from Kensington Books) 



Saturn Returns 

By Sean Williams 
Orbit Books 

Reviewed by Dirk Flinthart 

Saturn Returns is a fine book. It's better than fine. In fact, I sat down and read it in 48 hours 
flat, and the only thing that pissed me off was the fact that nowhere on the cover did it say 
"Book One In Yet Another Extended Series Which Sean Will Finish In His Own Good Time, 
So Just Sit Down, FlinthartV Saturn Returns is, in fact, a lovely example of a genre — the 
so-called New Space Opera — that speaks directly to the fourteen-year-old SF fan still 
lurking inside me. 

Imre Bergamasc, a sometime mercenary from The Corps, finds himself 
reconstituted out near the edge of the galaxy by a wandering shipload of collective- 
identity human-things called the Jinc. It's now the 879th millennium of human history. 
In less time than it takes to burp the main theme from Star Wars, Imre has discovered 
that his reconstructed-body memory is a bit out of sorts, that he's been largely dead 
for something like 150,000 years, and that apparently he — or a number of his 
alternate selves, since he's part of a kind of collective himself, all made up of identical 
versions of Imre Bergamasc racing enigmatically about the galaxy — has been very, 
very naughty in a way which may well have caused the collapse of the galaxy-wide 
civilisation called The Continuum. 

Escaping the Jinc with the help of a Mysterious Silver Spherical Plot Device, Imre 
zooms off to his old haunts around the Cat's Arse Nebula (interesting name!) to begin 
his personal tribute to the Blues Brothers: he's puttin' the band back together. 

Of course, it's not that simple. Some of the old Corps gang don't seem to want to 
come back. And some of them are pretty seriously imprisoned — particularly Render, 
a character who speaks only in quotes from Gary Numan lyrics. Not only that, but 
some of the multiple selves of various members of The Corps don't actually like each 
other a whole lot. Add in a few mysterious villains and conspiracies, and it gets pretty 
difficult from time to time to keep track of just who is shooting at whom, and why. But 
that's fine. That's exactly as it should be. Williams creates a fine sense of confusion 
in the reader which aptly mirrors the confusion of the main character, not hurting the 
actual storytelling in any way. 

The scope of the novel is vast. Millennia fly by as characters travel at near-lightspeed 
from one point to the next. Happily for the reader, Williams posits a personal time- 
perception-alteration technology called "tempo" which allows users to speed or slow 
their metabolic time. For one of these stellar travellers, a thousand years can pass in 



a single afternoon. This is very handy for readers, and even more so for The Continuum, 
because without citizens who can endure for millennia, it's kind of tough to conceive of 
a galaxy-wide civilisation limited by lightspeed. 

In fact, the crux of the story lies in this concept. The Continuum has come crashing 
down due to some mysterious influence called "The Slow Wave", which may or may not 
be the fault of one or more Bergamascs. This "Slow Wave" has the effect of suppressing 
a particular kind of communication channel used by enormous, distributed intelligences 
called "Forts" who were largely responsible for what order and direction The Continuum 
progressed. Under the Forts, the Galaxy spent a lot of time in vicious, highly ordered 
warfare. Without the Forts, it has collapsed into vicious, chaotic skirmishing. (Admittedly, 
it makes me wonder if the vast majority of the galaxy's inhabitants have actually noticed 
anything.) Imre, who once worked for the Forts, then organized a major war against the 
Forts only to surrender and apparently go back to work for them, not only discovers that 
his other-selves may have betrayed and possibly destroyed the Forts, but on the way to 
doing so, they seem themselves to have actually become one of these Forts in their own 
right... Which may actually establish some kind of record for 'most convoluted character 
loyalties in a popular fiction novel'. 

Obviously, the main thrust of the plot is all about poor old Imre trying to keep from 
being killed long enough to figure out what the blazes is going on, and whether or not 
it's his fault, whatever it is. 

Overall, Saturn Returns is a very entertaining read. Williams' prose is sharp as ever, 
with vivid characters, imaginative techno-splashy stuff, and a satisfying dash of dry, sly 
humour tucked up around the edges. If I had a gripe, it would be this: every now and 
again as Imre's reconstituted Corps picks up another member, we get long, complex 
chunks of individual backstory handed to us. To be fair, poor old Imre's gotta catch up 
on this stuff so it provides a fine opportunity to ensure that the reader is up to speed 
as well, but just possibly the trope gets a little overused. Certainly, it puts the brakes on 
an otherwise kickarse plot in a couple of places — but not enough to really bog things 

Still, now that the scene is properly set, the next book will be able to dispense with 
such minor trifles, and go charging ahead with the action. Therefore, Sean: get back to 
the keyboard. NOW! 


By Stephenie Meyer 

Trade Paperback, Atom, August 2007, 628pp 
Reviewed by Tehani Wessely 

There are two problems with this book. The first is I was so enthralled by it that I devoured it far 
too quickly (in one, albeit long, sitting in fact!). The second is that now I have to wait, and hope, 
for the next instalment. That's going to be a tough wait. Meyer's storytelling is compelling. She 
immerses the reader in her world to the extent where coming out of the book makes one gasp 



for air and struggle to reorient to that which is 'real'. 

Eclipse is the third novel in Stephenie Meyer's series chronicling the story of Bella, 
a teenager who has fallen irrevocably in love with a vampire, Edward. I first met 
Bella in the second book, New Moon (reviewed at http://www.andromedaspaceways. 
com/bookreviews.htm) and was so engrossed by Meyer's storytelling that I found and 
immediately read the first book Twilight. While consuming Twilight I realized what it 
was about the books that I found so compelling. In the beginning, Twilight feels like a 
straight young adult novel, written with bittersweet passion, teenage angst and anguish, 
and issues that are very real. The fact that Edward and his family are vampires is almost 
incidental for much of the book. This supernatural element does not define the story, even 
as it later becomes central to the plot. Rather, what defines the series is the excellence of 
Meyer's writing. 

In Eclipse, Stephenie Meyer takes her gift of storytelling to new heights. She 
experiments outside of Bella's first person perspective, introducing the oral histories 
tradition to provide juxtaposition to Bella's point of view and to introduce the extending 
storyline. In the epilogue, a different character takes on the point of view for the first time. 
I'm not sure this 'voice' was as effective for me (one of my few true complaints about the 
novel), but it may be Meyer is setting up for the fourth book. If this is the case, I hope 
the differences in the voice become more apparent, to create a stronger alternate to the 
Bella voice we've come to know. 

This is a minor quibble, detracting only slightly from the overall beauty of Meyer's 
narrative. Perhaps the greatest strength in her writing is her ability to channel emotions 
into words on a page. I read most of this book with either a smile on my face or tears in 
my eyes. I was drawn completely into Bella's struggle to figure out what to do with her life, 
and the young men who love her. What is delightful about this journey is Bella's growth 
as a character mirrors that of any adolescent. Bella's battle with the rogue vampires 
is a physical manifestation of the demons that chase many teens at that point in their 
lives: leaving home; breaking or stretching familial ties; choosing universities; forming 
relationships... Bella struggles with all this twofold as the metaphoric journey most of us 
undertake is made visible by Bella's participation in a real war against vampires. 

Bella's choice between life and undeath is made harder in this book by the knowledge 
of what her destiny might be if she took a different path, underscoring the decisions all 
adolescents make at this time in their lives, decisions that may set the course for the rest 
of their existence. Bella's decisions are heart wrenching, but it is fascinating to see Meyers 
delve into the adolescent psyche and draw out these struggles in such a realistic way. The 
relationship between Bella and Edward is soul encompassing and I'm certain that teens 
will relate to this complete relationship immersion just as strongly as adults will recall it. 

This book deals more deeply with the Quileutes and the werewolf pack spawned by 
the culture. Meyer treats her werewolves with care, just as she does her vampires, taking 
elements of the literary traditions associated with these tropes and twisting and extending 
them in her own unique vision. The character of Jacob once again provides a balance 
for Bella, but at the same time tears at her emotions, even more than in the second book. 
Meyer knows that relationships aren't simple or easy, and that sometimes the heart opens 
to more than one person, despite the depth of love a person may have for another, and 
she brings this to Bella's relationships beautifully. 



In Eclipse the peripheral characters are fleshed out more, as the background of other 
participants in the story is filled in. The complex world Meyer is beginning to build is 
fascinating and provides a rich tapestry against which Bella's ongoing saga continues. 
This series is promoted as Young Adult fiction, but appeals to a much wider audience. 
There is no sex in the novels, although the sensuality and passion is evident, and this is a 
major departure from other prominent vampire series doing the publishing rounds. There 
is certainly violence and death and other areas that may be traumatic to read, but they 
exist contained within the story. For me, the hardest parts to read are those in which Bella 
struggles against her own overwhelming emotions, not hordes of monsters. And that is 
what makes the book so wonderful. 

2012 Anthology 

Edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Ben Payne 
Twelfth Planet Press 

Reviewed by Tehani Wessely 

In a world where water is obviously a scarce commodity, scientists must take enormous risks 
to assess water caches. In Deborah Biancotti's "Watertight Lies", Gabrielle (Gabe) is on her 
first excursion underground to test water. Claustrophobics should not read this piece, and its 
ending will give even experienced spelunkers nightmares. An interesting combination of long 
descriptive passages with immediacy of action, this story draws you along for the ride. 

Unsurprisingly, Martin Livings takes a dark turn with "Skinsongs". Ra'Faella visits the 
tattoo parlour of the near future to sacrifice for her art. Livings' skill at the darker side 
of speculative fiction is amazing to read. Without being gruesome or overly explicit, he 
manages to make the reader cringe with the just-under-the-surface horror of what he 
writes. Not an easy thing to do. 

Elegance of writing is a Flinthart trademark, and in "The Last Word" Dirk Flinthart 
combines this style with a subtle and finely woven tale of science and big business. The 
lead character - intelligent and driven by demons that throw him together with his ex- 
girlfriend, a brilliant scientist with little regard for the realities of her research - is well 
drawn and easy to identify with, but his final work remains elusive to the reader ... until 
the last words. 

Ben Peek knows how to write a powerful piece, and at the end of reading "David 
Bowie", I felt a shiver up my spine. I'm not certain the piece entirely fits the 201 2 theme, 
but it is an excellent little vignette that leaves a strong emotion on ending. I found the 
actual style of the writing a little confusing, but a second re-reading (easy to do with a 
short piece, and no less powerful than the first) clarified my understanding. 

In "Oblivion" Sean McMullen offers the reader a moralistic tale of what is really 
important in life. The story manages to achieve its aim of containing a message about 
our near future without being overly preachy, in this quiet piece about a man at the end 
of his life. The last few paragraphs were perhaps a little heavy handed, but at the same 
time, the story worked fairly well for me. 

"Oh, Russia!" is another quiet story that examines life and death, family and loyalty, 



structured in the last grief-filled days of a husband watching his wife die. Simon Brown is 
a consummate artist with words, and his ability to draw such depths from what is actually 
a simply story is to be admired. 

I'll admit it, I didn't really "get" Lucy Sussex's contribution to this anthology. "Apocalyse 
Rules" is (I think) supposed to be a hi-jacked Wikipedia entry which references a sinister 
plot by the "amalgamated" to undermine world order. It's perhaps too heavy, too dense, 
for me to really enjoy, but I appreciate, as always, the integrity of Sussex's writing style. 

I've never met a Tansy Rayner Roberts story I didn't like, and "Fleshy", her (completely 
out of character SF-nal) story in this anthology is no exception. I have to say it is my 
favourite of them all, but I'll concede that may be my biases speaking! Tansy takes the 
very serious and contentious issue of human cloning and with knife sharp insight, makes 
this story both topical and enjoyable, without ever stepping into preach mode. 

The darker side of the near future is explored in Angela Slatter's "Aqua Humana". 
Again taking a topical subject matter - that of water usage and drought - Slatter posits 
a truly frightening scenario where the privileged gain water from any possible source. A 
religious leader tries to find a way to combat the drought, without knowing the terrible 
process behind the continued source of water, while her estranged boyfriend struggles 
to fight from a scientific perspective. Excellently paced, with a deeply disturbing scene 
being portrayed. 

If you have ever read a Kaaron Warren story, you will know what I mean when I 
say she has a gift for writing that is frighteningly elegant. The twining of words to form 
a tapestry of horror is a talent she has nurtured, and which has here produced "Ghost 
Jail", a weird and enigmatic tale that sweeps you along with your heart in your mouth 
until the chilling end. 

The theme of drought is clearly one that has captured many of the writers in 2012 
and David Conyers is no exception to this. Coupled with war, his piece "Soft Viscosity" is 
a gritty and complex story that follows a multi-layered plot through blood and torture, to 
a frightening and all too near future. I wasn't completely enamoured of Conyers' writing 
style, which felt at times as though the author was trying too hard to be stylish, but for 
such a long story, this reads well. 

I read these stories prior to anthology layout, so I can't add a comment on the 
overall style or offer concluding thoughts on the construction of the work. What I can say, 
unequivocally, is that Alisa Krasnostein and Ben Payne have put together a tight collection 
of finely crafted stories by some of Australia's best and brightest talents in 2008. They 
have set the bar for all publishers of short fiction this year, with an unusual theme that has 
been exploited very successfully with the broadest of interpretations by the contributors. 
This compilation showcases Australian speculative fiction at the very best it can be. Read 
it. The future is here. 


About the authors 

RJ Astruc is an African-Irish writer currently based in Australia. Her speculative fiction 
has been accepted by Strange Horizons, Abyss & Apex and Visible Ink, amongst 

Elizabeth Barrette writes fiction, non-fiction, and poetry in the fields of speculative 
fiction, gender studies, and alternative spirituality. Her poems have recently been 
published in Not One of Us, Star*Line, Strange Horizons. Her poem "Beach Climbing" 
was nominated for the Rhysling Award in 2007. She serves as Managing Editor of 
PanGaia magazine (; and as Dean of Studies for the Grey School 
of Wizardry (, where she teaches a four-part course in poetry. 
Her book Composing Magic is due out in July. She enjoys suspension-of-disbelief 
bungee-jumping and spelunking in other people's reality tunnels. Visit her blog at: 

Lyn Battersby is happily married to SF author Lee Battersby and together they have five 
children. She is a Clarion South 2007 graduate and has several publishing credits to 
her name. Her story, 'The Memory of Breathing', which appeared in issue 1 7 of ASIM, 
is currently under option to be made into a feature-length movie with the script having 
just undergone its third draft. You can check out her website at 

M P Ericson has lived in Sweden, Trinidad, and Tanzania, but is now settled in the north 
of England. She holds a PhD in Philosophy, and has worked as a tutor, researcher, and 
accountant. Her short fiction has appeared in venues such as Abyss &Apex, Dred, and 
the Freehold: Southern Storm anthology series from Carnifex Press. 

Tessa Kum is but a tiny grasshopper. She has published a handful of stories which 
have appeared in various CSFG and UC publications. Bitter Elsie Mae was written 
in the midst of the Clarion South 2005 workshop, and is a better story for it. She 
lives in Melbourne, Australia, and takes her tea with milk, no sugar. 


About the Authors 


Shana Lear started writing stories when she was only thirteen years old. Fortunately for 
everyone, this story was written nearly fifteen years and a great deal of experience later. 
Those early stories will not, we hope, ever again see the light of day. Shana graduated 
from UC Davis in 2002 with two majors in History and Comparative Literature. After 
moving to San Diego with her new husband that same year, she found that the real world 
was quite scary and attempted to mitigate the effects by working at another university, UC 
San Diego. When not working she enjoys spending time with her husband and two very 
furry cats, camping, hiking, and of course, thinking up strange and wonderful things to 
write about. 

Nigel Stones assures us that he was created in October 2004 in the basement of the 
Vision writers group. Born is probably not the right word: he claims he was assembled from 
a latte, a few smiles, some critique and a balding thirty seven year old IT Manager. Since 
the auspicious moment of his creation, he has had a handful of short stories published and 
made considerable progress towards completion of a fantasy novel. Details of his other 
publications can be found at 

Ellie Tupper is married, with one (brilliant, beautiful) daughter. She works for the American 
Society for Microbiology in Washington, DC, as a Senior Production Editor for ASM Press, 
managing science book projects from manuscript to printed book. She's been writing 
since crayon stage, mostly novels — sword & sorcery, suspense, romance -- but recently 
started on shorts. She has edited The Other End of the Microscope: the Bacteria Tell Their 
Own Story: a Fantasy by Elmer W. Koneman (ASM Press, 2002). 

Wade White lives in Scarborough, Ontario, Canada, with his wife and their two active 
boys. No pets, unless you count the squirrel in the attic and the poor inner city racoons 
who used to live under the extension in the back. By the time you're reading this, he should 
be finished his degree. If not, then it's entirely possible he's dead and buried somewhere 
never to be heard from again. Except hopefully in print. His stories have bribed their 
way into such fine establishments as Strange Horizons, Ideomancer, Lenox Avenue, and 
Fortean Bureau. He's also had a short film screenplay produced. 




We would like to express our sincerest thanks to the following contributors: 


Cover Art by Bruno Werneck 

Assassin's Gentleman, by Andrew Saltmarsh 
The Flying Woman, By Brian Smith 
Between the Lines, by Ash Arceneaux 
Witchmaiden and Dragon, by Eleanor Clarke 


Tehani Wessely Simon Petrie and Richard Scott. 
Slush Readers 

Joanne Anderton; Adam Bales; Zara Baxter; Sally Beasley; John 
Borneman; Craig Buchanan; Sue Bursztynski; Myk Dowling; 
Robert Feather; Jason Fischer, Dirk Flinthart; Lea Greenaway; 
Edwina Harvey; Corinna Horrigan; Simon Haynes; Devin Jeyathurai; 
Kevin Maclean; Tim Marsh; Debbie Moorhouse; Omega Morningstar; 
Nicole Murphy; Ian Nichols; Simon Petrie; Barbara Robson; 
Cynthia Rohner; Richard Scott; Jacinta Thornier; Tehani Wessely; 
Monissa Whiteley; Kevin Veale; Lucy Zinkiewicz. 

The Andromeda Spaceways Co-operative is: 
Joanne Anderton; Stuart Barrow; Zara Baxter; Sally Beasley; 
Sue Bursztynski; Andrew Finch; Jason Fischer, Dirk Flinthart; 
Edwina Harvey; Simon Haynes; Robbie Matthews (Editor-in-Chief); 
Ian Nichols; Simon Petrie; Richard Scott; Tehani Wessely; 
Monissa Whiteley, Lucy Zinkiewicz. 

Special thanks to Tara Smith, Accountant Extraordinaire.